Theater Review: “Good People” at Arena Stage

Arena’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s tribute to his working-class Boston roots is a triumph.

By: Gwendolyn Purdom

There’s a scene in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s stirring Good People, currently playing at Arena Stage, in which scrappy protagonist Margaret makes a nerve-racking surprise visit to a former flame’s office. The old boyfriend is now a successful doctor, and Margie, who’s just been laid off from her minimum-wage job at the local dollar store, has come on the off chance the office is hiring. It’s important she look her best. So costume designer Linda Cho outfits the character in the pretty floral blouse and sweater Margaret’s friend Jean had been wearing earlier in the play. The subtle choice is revealing of both the women’s close relationship and their financial standing, and it’s only one example of the poignant attention to detail that, among many other things, makes this beautifully complex production so powerful.

Lindsay-Abaire, Canadian director Jackie Maxwell, and a stellar cast of actors and designers have constructed an intimate universe of missed child support payments, incarcerated neighbors, disappointing scratch-off tickets, and overdoses, where weary but optimistic Margie (the extraordinary Johanna Day) is struggling to hold down a job that will provide for her and her disabled adult daughter. At the suggestion of her wisecracking friend Jean (Amy McWilliams), Margie seeks out Mike (Andrew Long), the bygone friend and fling who managed to “escape” their tight-knit blue-collar community, setting into motion a wicked smart (or “smaht,” as the Boston-based characters might say) exploration of class, fate, and perspective that is painfully funny and gut-wrenchingly real.

For all its grit and turmoil, the portrait Lindsay-Abaire paints of “Southie” (South Boston’s rough lower end) and its residents is a loving one. The playwright’s complicated feelings about his own Southie upbringing and the prep school scholarship that removed him from it served as the fodder for Good People, the New York Drama Critics Circle 2011 award winner for best play and timely follow-up to his Pulitzer-winning previous play, Rabbit Hole (Nicole Kidman nabbed an Oscar nod in the film adaptation).

Those complicated feelings come shining through in People’s rich, nuanced characters, made vibrant in this production by universally excellent performances. If the rest of the cast is terrific, Day is nearly flawless, communicating years of strength and struggle, pride and vulnerability cloaked in every snarky remark or blunt admission. The Tony-nominated actress is reprising the role after starring in its Boston premiere, and the casting couldn’t be better. As the fiercely loyal Jean, Amy McWilliams embodies her own elusive confidence in a life lived hard with humor and sharp honesty. Dottie, Margie’s gruff landlady, played by Rosemary Knower, adds another sturdy block to the neighborhood’s strong foundation of humanity.

It’s when this unapologetically genuine world collides with Mike’s equally complex, chandeliered existence that People blossoms. Andrew Long’s Mike wields a keen control, bubbling from simmer to boil and back again. As his trophy wife, Kate, Francesca Choy-Kee arms her character with a quiet depth her pretty young facade belies. The clash of the characters and classes is slow-building and raw, wrapped in the surface-level niceties polite society requires. It’s that slow build and breakdown that makes the action so satisfying. That, and the fact that the play is really, really funny.

As if the cast’s dramatic range weren’t affecting enough, impeccable comic timing and chemistry infuse the production with a weighty authenticity that hits the story’s many messages home even harder. Tapping the uncomfortable nerve that awkward interactions expose seems to be a growing comedic trend in recent years, and in this case it’s clear why the approach is so effective. Laughing or wincing, your emotional connection with the material is heightened. The play is not funny in the way a laugh-tracked sitcom might be; it’s funny in the way real life is.

It’s hard to say whether People working so well is more the result of top-notch actors or the scripts they were given. Obviously, it’s a little of both, which couldn’t be more fitting. The production tackles the age-old questions of nature versus nurture, hard work versus circumstance, and perception versus reality with straightforward freshness and finds that the answers are never black or white, or good or bad, but somewhere in between. In life, as it is in the dingy bingo hall Margie and her neighbors frequent, sometimes the cards are stacked against you and sometimes you get lucky.

Good People is at Arena Stage through March 10. Running time is about two hours and ten minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($40 to $85) are available via Arena Stage’s website. In conjunction with the show’s run, Arena is hosting a “Looking for a Few Good People” job fair with Ward 6 council member Tommy Wells on March 1 from 10 AM to 2 PM.