Good People gives a slice of Boston Life

Review by Peter Heck, Kent County News, April 16

 

Good People, currently playing at Church Hill Theatre, is a tough-minded, often hilarious look at the lives of working people in present-day America. Michael Whitehill directs.

  The play, written by David Lindsay-Abaire in 2011, is set in “Southie” - a working-class Irish neighborhood in South Boston. And for anyone familiar with that city, the accents, the place names and the local color all ring true.

  Voted best play of the 2011 season by the New York drama critics, Good People was also nominated for a Tony Award in that category, Frances McDormand’s performance in the leading role won a Tony Award in the leading role won a Tony and a Drama Desk award for best actress. After running for 101 performances in New York, the play went on to stagings in London, Frankfurt, Germany and several U.S. cities.

  This is a serious play leavened with a lot of laughs. Much of the plot hinges on what did or did not happen some 20 years ago in high school and how it affected everyone’s lives. It’s about hard work, hard lives and hard luck, about those who’ve “made it” and those who haven’t. It’s the clash between the “Shanty Irish” and the “Lace Curtain Irish.” But it could be any group in any neighborhood in any town.

  Good People is the story of Margie Walsh, a single mother from Southie. In the play’s first scene, we see her being fired from her job as a cashier at a dollar store for chronic lateness. The setting - in the back alley, next to the dumpster, with a background of traffic noise - speaks volumes. The young store manager, Stevie, has no office, and has to bring out a folding chair for Margie to sit in while he breaks the news to her. The meeting is as difficult for Stevie as for Margie, who has known him since he was a child and was friends with his mother, who has since died.

  The next scene underlines how tough Margie’s situation is. Over coffee with her friends Dottie and Jean, she talks about her slim chances of finding a new job. From the next room we hear the children’s TV shows her handicapped daughter Joyce is watching. One of the other women, her landlady, is sympathetic. But she makes it clear she can’t keep carrying Margie without any rent coming in.

  The other friend mentions seeing a high school friend, Mike, who’s escaped Southie to become a successful doctor. She tells Margie she should see if Mike knows of any jobs.

  Margie visits Mike in his office, where he is clearly uncomfortable being reminded how far he’s come from his blue-collar roots. And he has no job for her. But when he happens to mention he’s having a party at his home with other doctors as guests, Margie pushes him into inviting her; maybe one his colleagues has a job she can do.

  Most of the second act takes place at Mike’s house, where Margie meets his wife Kate, a younger woman. The discomfort level ramps up for all three of them as Margie drops bits of Mike’s past into the conversation, leading up to a major bombshell. The final scene takes place at a church bingo game, where some - but not all - the loose ends are wrapped up.

  The role of Margie is remarkably demanding - the character is on stage almost the whole play - and Kathy Jones is outstanding in the part. Jones, who was cast as a domineering grandmother in CHT’s production of Lost in Yonkers, tops that strong performance in this play. She powerfully conveys Margie’s inner toughness and truth to her roots without skimming over her fundamental ignorance, prejudice and almost total lack of polish - keeping the character real without making her unsympathetic. She lets us know that Margie is at heart a good person - kind and caring despite her rough exterior. A virtuoso performance.

  Pat Martin plays the role of Mike, the character who thinks he embodies the American dream: work hard and you can pull yourself up from even the worst origins. Martin gives the character a likeable veneer to begin with, then lets it fall away as Margie probes his depths to see what remains of the boy she grew up with. Well done.

  Lynn McLain as Jean and Sheila Austrian as Dottie are characters cut from the same cloth as Margie, but life has dealt them a few more breaks than their friend. They both get their share of raunchy comic lines, but they also give a glimpse of the humanity of their characters. Nicely done by both.

  Paul Briggs is well cast as Stevie, the manager who fires Margie and then bumps into her in the course of everyday life. He is particularly good at showing his character walking the fine line between having to do what he must to keep his own job while feeling sympathy for the woman - a long-time family friend - he has to let go.

  Shelby Billups, a junior at Queen Anne’s County High School, is a breath of fresh air as Kate, Mike’s wife. She projects her character’s greater sophistication as well as her sympathy for Margie, with whom she has so little in common. An excellent performance by a CHT newcomer.

  Church Hill has a well-earned reputation for spectacular sets. This time, Whitehill said he chose a sparer approach, with four movable backboards to represent the settings. Whitehill said he wanted to keep the set from detracting from the characters and their story.

  This play’s realism extends to the language of the characters, products of an unrefined environment where political correctness is a foreign concept. In addition to casual scatological and sexual references, they let loose a stream of racial and ethnic slurs. The mostly mature audience Sunday laughed heartily, but if rough language bothers you, be advised. And you migh not want to bring the kids.

  Good People will be on stage at Church Hill through April 26. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for members and $10 for students. For reservations or for more information, call the theater at 410-556-6003 or visit. www.churchhilltheatre.org.