The opening scene in “Good People” makes us squirm as often as we cheer for its heroine. That’s the beauty of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s characters; they are achingly imperfect, which makes them oh-so-compelling.
We meet Margaret (Johanna Day), a middle-aged, single mom from Southie, just as she’s about to lose her cashier’s job at the Dollar Store. She’s been called out to the smelly warehouse — beautifully rendered by Alexander Dodge to emphasize the impression that she is boxed in — by her manager Stevie (Nick Westrate), a kid whose mother went to school with Margaret. She knows where this conversation is going and in her desperation, plays every card she has to stall, deflect, guilt, or embarrass Stevie from firing her.
Day is wonderfully war-
weary as Margaret (Margie to her friends), but she’s still got spirit, and Day’s exquisite sense of timing allows Margie to seem easygoing and amiable, before zapping her opponent with a sharp reply or insult delivered with a smile.
It’s no good though, she’s been tardy too often, and when Margaret heads home for some sympathy from her friends — the inimitable Nancy E. Carroll (Dottie) and Karen MacDonald (Jean) — the expected warm kitchen scene is hilariously nasty. This trio of friends has the kind of history together that makes them family, the kind of family you can be brutally honest with, even mean to, because tomorrow you’ll still be invited over for coffee or head out together on Bingo night.
Dottie, Margie’s selfish landlord, is more concerned about getting her rent and making bunnies out of Styrofoam and flowerpots than she is in baby-sitting Margie’s grown daughter whom she describes as “retarded,” while Jean “the mouthie from Southie” encourages her to stir up some trouble.
Margie takes Jean’s advice and looks up an old high school boyfriend named Mike (Michael Laurence) who’s gotten out of Southie and become a successful doctor. She not only muscles her way into his office, but she gets herself invited to a party at his house with the hope that someone he knows can get her a job. “He’s good people, I always said that about him,” she says.
But is he? In his office, Margie accuses Mike of being “lace-curtain Irish,” essentially denying his roots, which strikes a nerve. Mike is one Southie kid who has worked hard to escape the neighborhood he considered “a black hole,” and Margie’s vivid memories of people and places he’s worked hard to forget, make him uncomfortable.
Much of the second act takes place in Mike’s luxurious Chestnut Hill home (another breathtaking set from Dodge), where his wife, Katie (Rachael Holmes), who happens to be African-American, is eager to hear Margie tell stories about Mike’s childhood.
Katie plays the gracious hostess to a T, while revealing the tension in her marriage. When Mike starts feeling that Margie is pressuring him, the scene escalates, with Lindsay-Abaire deftly shifting our allegiances from moment to moment.
Director Kate Whoriskey lets the proceedings unfold at an almost leisurely pace, lulling the audience into an easy familiarity with these characters.
It works because Lindsay-Abaire’s dialogue, particularly between the three friends, both in Margie’s apartment, with her disabled daughter in the next room, and in the church Bingo hall, work in tightly crafted circles, that seem to be skimming the surface and then go for the jugular.
Lindsay-Abaire isn’t afraid to show the nastier side of his characters’ personalities. Does that still qualify them as “good people”?
“Good People” is less about the class issues that appear on the surface – the boy who escaped and the girl who remained trapped – and more about people’s integrity wherever life takes them.