Arena Stage Good PeopleBy Bob Ashby • Feb 9th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage: (Info) (Web)
Arena Stage-Kreeger, Washington DC
Through March 10th
2:10 with one intermission
Start at $40 (plus fees)
Reviewed February 7th, 2013
David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People is a good play. Not a great play, perhaps, but one that is an intelligently written exploration of the impact, emotional as well as economic, of social class. Arena Stage’s sharp-edged production conveys what it feels like to be caught for life in “Southie,” the impoverished South Boston neighborhood in which Lindsay-Abaire grew up, and the ambivalence involved in escaping that life.
The central figure is Margaret Walsh, a complex, multi-layered character beautifully inhabited by Johanna Day. In her late forties, fired from her slightly above minimum wage job for chronic tardiness brought on by problems in finding care for her adult disabled daughter, Margie is desperate to find a job. She is all too aware that she is just a step away from homelessness. Tough, wise cracking, angry, hard-working, never afraid to speak her mind, distrustful, honorable by the standards she has grown up with, she also has a sometimes self-defeating streak of kindness. She unleashes harsh zingers and then tries to deflect the sting of what she has said with phrases like “I’m just playin'” or “I’m just bustin’ balls.”
Margie’s landlady Dottie (Rosemary Knower) is her friend but also not hesitant to let her know that she will be evicted if she can’t come up with the rent. Dottie and Margie’s friend Jean (Amy McWilliams) share time at the bingo parlor, commiserating, gossiping, remembering old neighborhood stories, and swapping funny one-liners. Knower and McWilliams do fine character acting turns, but Lindsay-Abaire’s script, while painting a colorful picture of the sense of the community in which the women live, gives Dottie and Jean little opportunity to grow beyond the point of being particularly well-written sitcom characters.
At Jean’s suggestion, Margie looks up her high school boyfriend, Mike Dillon (Andrew Long), hoping he can give her a job. In the 30 years since they last saw one another, Mike has become a successful doctor with a pretty younger wife and a pretty house in the suburbs. Mike isn’t wealthy, he says, just “comfortable.” The keynote of Long’s terrific performance is that Mike is anything but comfortable. Mike is constantly shrugging, taking his hands in and out of his pockets, bending his trunk and neck, and moving about nervously. He tries all the polite, indirect ways he can think of to avoid dealing with a woman who reminds him of the world he left to make a better life for himself.
The theme of discomfort extends to Mike’s home, which he shares with his African-American wife, Kate (Francesca Choy-Kee). The Dillons have a tense, troubled marriage and are currently in counseling. Kate is a sheltered “Georgetown girl,” who has known nothing but security and affluence all her life. She is native to the upper middle class, professional universe in which she and Mike now live; he remains an immigrant to that universe, who relates to its culture like someone speaking a second language. There is a telling moment when Kate brings out a selection of gourmet cheeses that Mike describes as “creamy drippy,” “smells like ammonia,” “body odor,” and “moldy basement.” He thinks it’s funny; she doesn’t. In his insecurity, Mike has withheld a good deal of emotionally relevant information about his past from Kate, adding to her discomfort in the relationship.
When Margie shows up at his house in Act 2, Mike is eager to have her leave as soon as possible. After a humorous start, the scene turns serious, and then antagonistic, as Mike and Margie not only debate the meaning of the differing paths their lives have taken but go to some lengths to hurt one another. The personal and political merge. Their clash is the dramatic heart of the play. From Mike’s point of view, he made it out of Southie because of hard work, and Margie remained where she is because she made poor choices. From Margie’s perspective, Mike needed a lot of good luck and some help to succeed, while she had bad luck and not a lot of genuine choices to make. While the scene centers on Mike and Margie, Choy-Kee makes an impression through a nice series of transitions, from unhappy spouse to gracious host to ally of Margie to defender of her husband after Margie makes a particularly damaging personal accusation.
Michael Glenn rounds out the cast as Stevie, a young man in the neighborhood who has a bit better fortune in life than the three Southie women. He reluctantly must fire Margie in the first scene, is amusing as a bingo enthusiast, and then treats Margie kindly in the last scene. Like the other cast members in this naturalistic play, Glenn is thoroughly grounded in his character’s place in the world.
Todd Rosenthal’s set design consists of two large, weathered Southie houses, leaning at angles toward center, with a backdrop of another dark building. Doors in the buildings open to permit a kitchen and a doctor’s office unit to slide into the playing area for two Act 1 scenes, and Mike and Kate’s house interior occupies the center space in Act 2. The house is a large, warm, tasteful space, as one would expect someone with Kate’s background to select. The Southie houses loom over the Dillons’ home, just as Mike and Margie’s relationship to the that neighborhood shadows their lives.
The structure of Good People isn’t perfect. At times, significant comic moments (like who is going to win a bingo game in Act 1, what sort of present Margie is bringing to the Dillons in Act 2) are telegraphed. The transition early in Act 2 from dark comedy to searing drama is abrupt. Lindsay-Abaire does not play quite fair with the audience in laying somewhat misleading groundwork in Act 1 for a final scene surprise. That said, the quality and wit of the writing, and its portraits of the characters’ complex reality, deserve the nearly universal praise that this frequently-produced work has received.
The play’s focus on social class, and its willingness to let both Margie and Michael make their cases, is a welcome addition to the ongoing national discussion about economic inequality. Much of the rhetoric of last election season concerned just this issue, which also resonates in the starkly diverging views of Justices Thomas and Sotomayor concerning the role of affirmative action programs in their lives. The great virtue of Good People is its ability to put a vivid, emotional, human face on what sometimes can seem an abstract policy discussion or merely the subject of a 30-second political spot.
When I was a young person, I dreamed about what it would be like to have a life in the theater. Years later, I now know. Having a life in the theater is all about relationships with artists, audience members, board members and the community.
I’ve known Jackie Maxwell for over 30 years now. I initially met her while I was at Perseverance Theater in Alaska and we reconnected in Banff, Canada when she was working as dramaturg and I was on a quest to find great Canadian theater artists. We found each other and had wonderful conversations-then lost each other as our lives took us to opposite ends of our continent-and found each other again, eight years ago in Washington, DC when Jackie came to see the Sondheim Festival at the Kennedy Center.
We’re a couple of rare animals in the theater-women artistic directors running major institutions. Jackie is the Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada and runs what many believe is the finest company in North America. We share similar values and have the deep pleasure of knowing some of the same artists in Canada and the United States.
Over the years I’ve watched as Jackie’s work has grown and changed. I am continually impressed with her exquisite use of language in telling a story and the grace she uses in both simple and complicated elements in her work. She is an expert on Shaw and she brings this expertise to her work on Good People, a play that Shaw probably would have quite admired.
David Lindsey-Abaire has taken this time we are living in, with questions of class surfacing around us, and places it at the heart of the story. He uses humor to delve into the intricate questions about the consequences of class, and the role of individual choice and circumstances. In his beautifully composed drama he moves us to ask ourselves how we determine our place in life and how far we will go to get the life we want.
– Molly Smith, Artistic Director
Photos by Margot Schulman
- Margaret: Johanna Day
- Stevie: Michael Glenn
- Dottie: Rosemary Knower
- Jean: Amy McWilliams
- Mike: Andrew Long
- Kate: Francesca Choy-Kee
- Executive Director: Edgar Dobie
- Director: Jackie Maxwell
- Artistic Director: Molly Smith
- Artistic Associate/Literary Manager: Amrita Ramanan
- Technical Director: Scott Schreck
- Properties Director: Chuck Fox
- Set Designer: Todd Rosenthal
- Costume Designer: Linda Cho
- Costume Director: Joseph P. Salasovich
- Costume Shop Manager: T. Tyler Stumpf
- Lighting Designer: Michael Gilliam
- Original Composition and Sound Designer: James Sugg
- Sound Director: Timothy M. Thompson
- Dialect Coach: Anita Maynard-Losh
- Master Electrician: Christopher V. Lewton
- Stage Manager: Kurt Hall
- Assistant Stage Manager: Christi B. Spann
- Casting Director: Dan Pruksarnukul
- Show Carpenters: Sean Jeffries, James P. Mulhern III, Michael D. Ward
- Props: Justin Titley
- Light Board Operator: Paul Villalovoz
- Sound Engineer: Aaron Allen
- Wardrobe Supervisor: Emily Grace Blackstone
- Artistic Development Fellow: Nadia Mahmassani
- Directing Fellow: Shanita Parasuraman
- New York Casting Assistant: Lauren Port
- Overhire Carpenters: Richard Irwin, Sara Splaine, Elisabeth White
- Overhire Painters: Za Johns, Kelly Rice, Katherine Wertz
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9123.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.