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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.

Johanna Day as Margie and Amy McWilliams as Jean in Good People. Photograph by Margot Schulman.

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
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.