By Bill Hirschman
The path we take in life and the place we end up – how much of that is a matter of lucky opportunities, how much a matter of the socio-economic circumstances we were born into, and how much is a matter of choices we knowingly make?
David Lindsay-Abaire’s insight-laden, perspective-shifting dramedy Good People at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre intentionally doesn’t directly answer the question and it does cross-examine any suppositions. Instead, it lays out the conflicting philosophies for audiences to debate on the way home.
You really have to bestow credit for the courage of Producing Artistic Director Andrew Kato: When the Maltz slips a play in between its big-budget light-themed musicals, it’s usually an ambitious, thought-provoking, even socially uncomfortable offering.
Good People’s heroine Margie is a late 40s single-mother severely struggling amid the fiscal and emotional depths of the 2011 recession in the rough-and-tumble blue collar-blue jeans Boston neighborhood known as Southie.
Margie has lost yet another job in a long line of layoffs, this time because she regularly comes late to her post as a checker at a Dollar Store because she’s trying to deal with her severely handicapped adult daughter.
Intelligent, driven, savvy about the realities of the world, we find the weary Margie sitting around her kitchen table bantering with her buddies, the jauntily acerbic Jean and the chatty opinionated Dottie (also her landlady and part-time babysitter).
With social gallows humor, they are trying to figure out how Margie can cope with the very concrete life-supporting challenging of the immediate future. They talk about a high school classmate who became a homeless alcoholic during this economic meltdown died on the street a few blocks away.
They encourage Margie to contact Mike, a brief summer boyfriend from 30 years ago whose own intelligence and drive earned him a scholarship to college. He escaped the confines of Southie and is now a well-to-do accomplished doctor living in the ritzy suburbs; perhaps he might have a job for her.
Jean suggests that in this world Margie should insinuate to him that he is the father of her child. “You have to be a selfish prick to get somewhere,” Jean says. Margie responds, “That’s not who I am.” But she agrees to ask Mike for a job at his office.
Their first meet is an amazingly complex game of chicken in which no one is comfortable, with reminders of their past used as a weapon. “I don’t mean to bust your balls,” she says often when that’s exactly what she means to do.
Margie (pronounced Mar-gee) finally draws blood when she accuses him of having become “lace curtain Irish,” a profound aspersion back in the neighborhood meaning someone who has discarded their roots. He very reluctantly agrees to allow her to come to his home at a party where she might hit up guests for a job, even though in his mind she would be an unwanted avatar of his past to his new social and economic class.
But just as you think you have everyone sussed out, wait for the second act when Margie shows up at Mike’s stylish home that he shares with his warm, welcoming and younger) African-American wife Kate. Don’t go home at intermission – dark secrets emerge and ruthless ploys are attempted that are not necessarily expected.
Pride is the unspoken factor aggravating, blocking, tackling, undercutting all of the verbal maneuvering and gamesmanship. Margie not only isn’t ashamed of her background, she is self-aware enough of the class chasm to make fun of it. She is asked out of pure perfunctory nicety, “How’s the wine?” She blithely fires back: “How the fuck should I know?”
At the heart of the Tony-nominated script, a raft of nature-nurture issues is raised such as whether someone actually earned their success or was each player’s present a factor of having parents who cared or ignored their child.
Director Jerry Dixon is so skillful that it’s almost impossible to see his hand in the staging, the pacing and the mining of the complex layers of the script.
The magic of Anne Bates’ performance is that this actress, who has done Shakespeare, vanishes inside the dumpy plain-faced Margie. Her multi-faceted creation with Dixon is someone we admire for her tenacity and pride, yet who has her own share of shortcomings.
Her face communicates a host of emotions, but also sometimes an attitude as weather-beaten as the bricks in nearby buildings. She makes the most of Lindsay-Abaire’s goal to depict just how desperate she is while still trying to maintain her pride. Bates excels in her Margie’s first reunion with Mike, as her character ventures back and forth over fine lines of aggressive-passive push-pull attack-retreat.
At one moment, Kate admonishes her husband’s reticence to help with, “She doesn’t want charity,” and Margie shoots back instantly with an ultra-pragmatic, “Sure, I do.”
Joe Cassidy is just as convincing as Mike who takes enormous pride in having “escaped” his background, yet never acknowledging, as Margie suggests, that he had help and breaks his friends never had. The role is difficult and Cassidy starts off as the jerk in the scenario, but becomes far more complicated as the Margie pulls out the stops.
The rest of the cast is first-rate as well: Tracee Beazer is a warm, welcoming and razor-sharp Kate; Delphi Harrington is a dotty but terribly practical Dottie; Sean William Davis is a young Southie man who has achieved a small level of success as a manager of the Dollar Store and unwilling to sacrifice it for his mother’s old friend Margie. And it is so good to once again see Kim Cozort Kay, one of the region’s veteran leading ladies, back on a main stage, as the “mouthy” Jean.
A nod of credit is due dialect coach Michael Dean Morgan who not only elicits a variety of credible Boston area accents inherent with their own music but, perhaps with Dixon, has Mike’s homeboy’s accent somewhat toned down from the 30 years away from the hood.
Sydney Lynne creates a series of south Boston locales, an alley behind a Dollar Store, a very modest apartment kitchen and a bingo parlor, all dominated by that weather-beaten brick. It correctly contrasts starkly with Mike and Kate’s elegantly appointed living room, although why it is equipped with lawbooks is a mystery since neither is a lawyer.
K. April Soroko provides costumes that instantly tells us all we need to know about the characters socio-economic status and personalities down to the work boots and plaid shirts. Kirk Bookman again adds to the environment with his lighting and the sound by Jeremy “Matthew J.” Earhart is pristine (he should give lessons to some other venues).
It’s terribly cute that the pre-curtain music as the audience files in is the perfectly appropriate hard rough grunge, but that as the show begins, the melodious Doris Day “Que Sera, Sera,” wafts over the chamber.
GableStage mounted a fine production in 2013 with local stalwarts Laura Turnbull, Elizabeth Dimon, Barbara Bradshaw, Steve Anthony, Clay Cartland (all of whom, still work regularly in the region) and Renata Eastlick who moved to New York City but returns to play in Florida productions.
Good People runs through Feb. 26 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesaday to Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets cost $68-$120. Call (561) 575-2223 or visit https://tickets.jupitertheatre.org/BoxOffice/