Which is tougher: moving up and out of a poor neighborhood, or staying put to make a hardscrabble life there? For the people in the working-class “Southie” neighborhood of Boston in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, getting ahead isn’t a matter of making good choices. Sometimes it depends on having any choices at all.
Currently at Burlington’s FlynnSpace in a Vermont Stage Company production, Good People is a story of hard times. Middle-aged Margie loses her job, which had barely enabled her to support herself and her severely disabled adult daughter. The economy is tanking, and she’s now too old for assembly-line work. Her landlady may be a friend, but that won’t stop her from tossing Margie on the street if her own son needs the apartment.
The one straw left to clutch is a wild one. Margie had a short summer fling in high school with Mike, the smart kid from Southie who parlayed a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania into a medical career. He’s now back in the area, living in an affluent suburb. When Margie visits his office looking for a job, her toughness takes over and she battles as much as she pleads. When she finagles an invitation to a party at Mike’s house, she’s ready to try nearly anything to keep her head above water.
VSC’s production emphasizes the considerable humor in the play, winner of the 2011 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. For Lindsay-Abaire’s characters, the prime coping mechanism is mouthing off. Margie’s snappy comebacks demonstrate her quick wit and combative nature, a combo that remains endearing throughout the play.
Good People tries to have it both ways: to paint a portrait of the overwhelming economic problems in America today and to entertain theatergoers for two hours. Director Tara Lee Downs follows the playwright’s lead to let the comfortable comedy prevail. Class-struggle fans, this is not your play. You can walk out of the theater with no more concern for the poor than you had when you walked in. But neither will you have less.
Lindsay-Abaire has the precise street cred to write the play: He grew up in South Boston with working-class Irish American parents. His road out began with a scholarship to prep school, and then on to college. If he has any personal demons to remind him of his rise out of Southie, he lets the fierce loyalties and ready wisecracks of the neighborhood prevail over the economic scars.
Downs keeps the pace brisk — too brisk at times, so that reactions are rushed. Nevertheless, this polished production gives all the actors room to shine.
Mary List Wheeler firmly captures Margie’s physicality, from the unruly mess of her strawberry-blond hair to her swaggering step. She’s one tough cookie and proud of it. But when Margie must admit defeat, Wheeler allows herself a shrug to convey she expected it all along. That’s how she keeps going: letting gumption outweigh desperation.
With a powerful accent and defiant stance, Wheeler’s Margie is a force to be reckoned with. But when she’s nervous or vulnerable, Wheeler tends to play the anxiety as pure speed, which leaves no time for her to connect with other actors or to register fear. When supervisor Stevie fires her, Wheeler lets haste stand in for panic and seems to deflect the bad news rather than show the toll it takes. As much as Margie needs pride for armor, Wheeler makes the shell too thick.
As Mike, John Jensen chooses to retain his lower-class Boston accent, a puzzling choice for someone who’s cut every tie to his impoverished start in life. But it begins to make more sense as we see how much Southie aggressiveness lives on in him. He’s not some laid-back, intellectual contrarian but a true battler.
Jensen has the tough task of embodying his poor, pugnacious roots and the sophisticated tastes he’s acquired. We need to believe that a kid who upheld his neighborhood’s prejudice to the point of beating a black kid senseless can go on to marry the African American daughter of one of his mentors. Kate is a trophy wife in years and beauty, but she represents a very unusual trophy for a Southie kid. Jensen is quite good at letting Mike’s temper boil up after years of repressing it, but he’s less convincing as the settled, rich doctor.
Amy Burrell-Cormier plays Kate with a cool polish the other characters could never attain. Her serene presence, sinuous movement and rapt attention on stage make her riveting.
Robert Harte boldly creates a set of obsessive-compulsive tics for Stevie. It’s a brilliant choice, and it makes this low-level manager a barely competent struggler instead of a tyrant. He’s yet another victim of Southie.
Maura O’Brien’s powerhouse turn as Margie’s pal Jean combines crowd-pleasing humor with live-wire energy. Relishing every vowel of her thick accent, O’Brien puts on makeup and marks her bingo card like she’s expecting a fight. She plays the role with the volume turned way up, but she earns it by investing herself so fully in each moment.
As landlady Dottie, Katie Owens is the unflappable butt of Jean’s jokes. Owens underscores Dottie’s inflexible avarice by rarely looking another character in the eye. She’d rather thumb through a magazine or zone out on her bingo card. This interpretation keeps her from connecting with the other characters. It’s a solid idea, but not as fulfilling for the audience.
Jeff Modereger’s set design is rich with detail. We learn a lot about Margie’s life from her secondhand kitchen chairs and the nearly empty sugar shaker she has probably swiped from a diner. Modereger also hits some nice notes in Mike’s upscale living room, though it’s not opulent enough to unsettle Margie or overwhelm the audience. But the designer’s big triumph is fully realizing a store alleyway, Southie kitchen, church basement, doctor’s office and living room all within the confines of the FlynnSpace.
Jeffrey Salzberg’s lighting design, with a minimal color palette, illuminates the hard times and wisely sugarcoats nothing.
Cora Fauser’s costumes quickly tell the class story, relying on both the easy shorthand of Red Sox paraphernalia and more nuanced choices. All the costumes work well, but Fauser’s wardrobe for Margie, Stevie and Kate truly embellish our understanding of the characters.
In Good People, there’s a difference between good and nice. Margie is “good people.” She’s also nice enough to make a lot of selfless choices: She forgives Stevie for firing her and Dottie for failing her, and she hasn’t let bitterness corrode her despite the consequences of a teen pregnancy. But when she grasps, even briefly, a weapon that might bring Mike down, she spends some time relishing it. We can tell it’s not an unfamiliar feeling. Then she gets to decide what she’ll do with it.
"Good People" by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Tara Lee Downs, produced by Vermont Stage Company at FlynnSpace, Burlington. Through May 12; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. $24.30-$32.50. Info, 863-5966. flynntix.org
The original print version of this story was headlined “Boston Strong”