‘Good People’ delivers an astute class on the working class
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org September 23, 2012 10:43PM
(left to right) Margaret (ensemble member Mariann Mayberry) catches up with her old flame, Mike (Keith Kupferer), in Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Good People by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by ensemble member K. Todd Freeman. Good People runs September 13 - November 11, 2012 in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre (1650 N Halsted St).
When: Through Nov. 11
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Info: (312) 335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org
Updated: October 25, 2012 6:11AM
David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” now receiving an altogether exemplary production at Steppenwolf Theatre, should be compulsory viewing for every candidate running for office this November, every politician currently serving and every voter, too.
The play reveals more about the temper, spirit and hardcore problems that define this country at the moment — socially, economically, racially and more — than any stump speech or televised debate is capable of doing. Nuanced rather than brashly partisan, and impressively unsentimental, it is acutely observant as it captures the daily realities of people with radically different roots, resources and potential for social mobility. And perhaps the only reason it failed to clinch a Pulitzer Prize is that its 2011 competition included such similarly engaged works as Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” and Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” (both seen at Steppenwolf).
“Good People” is primarily about the white working class, many of whom now are either without a job or with minimum-wage jobs that cannot support even the most bare-bones existence. It also is about one man who made it out of the working class and into the posh preserves of the upper middle class, and who, along the way (and in a deliciously accurate twist on expectations), married a black woman from an elite family. In other words, this is a very American story fueled by some very raw emotions.
The place is South Boston’s Lower End neighborhood, famous for its feisty blue-collar, largely Irish-American, Polish and Lithuanian immigrant population, and for its resistance to forced busing in the service of desegregation.
Margaret (Mariann Mayberry, blessed with a character that allows her to be at turns edgy, shrewd, resigned, sexy, resentful and desperate, resulting in the performance of her career) is a hardcore Southie. Now in her late 30s, she never made it past high school, became pregnant at 17 and now has a grown daughter (who was born premature and mentally retarded), who she has raised on her own.
When she is fired from her job as a cashier at a dollar store because of frequent lateness (the result of unreliable child care, public transportation and “life”), Margaret grows increasingly desperate, especially since her landlady, Dottie (Molly Regan, a unique deadpan comedian), wants to give her apartment to her unemployed veteran son and family. Jobs, even at the local Gillette factory, are nearly impossible to find. (Will Allan is just right as Stevie, the nerdy store manager who fires Margaret because he must keep his job.)
Another friend, Jean (the wonderfully brassy Lusia Strus), suggests she get in touch with a former high school boyfriend, a successful and admired doctor, Mike (Keith Kupferer, who perfectly captures the mix of scrappy Southie roots overlaid with professional polish). When she arrives at his office to ask for any sort of job — he is now a wealthy fertility specialist — he is polite but uneasy. Clearly she knows too much about the world he left behind, and she grows increasingly irked by what seems like his “lace curtain” snobbiness. Nevertheless, she wrangles an invitation to the birthday party his wife, Kate (the supremely good Alana Arenas), will be throwing for him in their home in an upscale suburb. Not surprisingly, things grow increasingly tense and twisted when the three meet.
There is much worthy back and forth about “choices” and “responsibility” here, with a searing riff by Margaret about what it really means to be poor, and when a cracked tooth and no insurance can end up triggering a veritable tsunami of misfortunes. Contrast that with the elaborate cheese tray and the heavily insured “push gift” Mike gave Kate for giving birth to their daughter, and two different universes come into view.
K. Todd Freeman, a superb actor, has clearly mastered the director’s trade, too. There is not a false note in this expertly cast production which also features designer Walt Spangler’s brilliant, photo-realist sets (from a Catholic school basement bingo hall to a chic modern interior). But the play’s the thing here, and it will either confirm your prejudices, prick your conscience or both.