By Karen Isaacs
Theater critics often see multiple productions of a play over several years. It is always interesting how they reaction to each production.
A case in point is the current production at TheaterWorks of Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire. running through June 28.
The play is set in “Southie” — the south end of Boston which is heavily Irish and poverty level. The people who live in Southie are scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck or on assistance. We meet Margie, a middle-aged mother of a disabled daughter. She has just lost her job due to excessive lateness. She’s lost many jobs before that for similar reasons; if her daughter is sick or if the care-giver is late, Margie misses work. She makes barely over minimum wage and the young manager who fires isn’t doing much better. Neither are her older landlady — who sometimes watches her daughter and has a son who is unemployed — nor her friend Jean. All are struggling.
Jean mentions that while serving as wait-staff at a charity dinner, she saw Mike — the one person from the neighborhood who made it out. He is now a prominent physician and has returned to Boston. With some encouragement from Jean, Margie decides to contact him — perhaps he has a job in his office; after all they had been longtime friends and had even dated for a few months before he left for an Ivy League college.
The first meeting with Mike goes OK but he doesn’t have a job for Margie. Her edgy comments which she always claims are “jokes” pushes him away. He reluctantly invites her to a birthday party is wife is giving for him at their home in Chestnut Hill (a posh Boston suburb), but a day before the party, he calls Margie to tell her his daughter is ill and the party has been cancelled.
Margie does not believe him and shows up at the house on the appointed evening to find the party has indeed been cancelled. But Mike’s wife Kate urges her to stay a while and tell her about Mike’s youthful indiscretions. Mike and Kate’s marriage is not on the firmest ground and some of the things Margie tells Kate do not help matters.
I won’t reveal the last half of act two — let us say that some things are said and claimed that further shake up Mike and Kate’s marriage and that may or may not be true.
The play ends with Margie in the same predicament as before: out of work and desperate for money.
So what is this play all about?
First of all it is about class. The problems those who grow up in the poorer neighborhoods face and the obstacles that prevent them from breaking out. It is also about how those who do make it out often forget their roots.
Is it also about race? Mike has married a well educated and upper middle class African -American woman. Yet the Southie neighborhood in which he grew up abutted a black neighborhood with the expected tensions. Does Margie take pleasure in bringing those tensions to the attention of Kate?
It asks the question — sometimes too frequently — if it is just “luck” that some do succeed? Is it the luck of having two parents, or parents who care and push, or a special talent or resiliency, or even the choices and sacrifices of others? Margie accuses Mike of being “lucky” thus denigrating the hard work that he put into to succeeding and getting out. Obviously, this annoys Mike. He does not want to admit that luck played a role in his success. He does not want to acknowledge that anyone who is driven to over-achieve has probably benefitted not only from luck but also from stepping on some people on the way up.
But what about those who cannot get out? Are they just unlucky or are they responsible for the choices they make? Margie may not have had parents who encouraged her, but she did drop of out of school; she makes choices that led to consequences that keep her in Southie. Maybe it is because that is where she is comfortable.
The term “good people” is bandied about a lot in the play. We’ve all used the phrase to refer to people yet each of us probably has our own meaning for the term. Is it those who are caring and ethical? Is it those who are “down to earth” and don’t put on pretensions or feel they are superior?
But the title Good People is ironic; few of the characters in the play would be considered that. Margie has repressed anger that reveals itself in passive-aggressive behavior; Jean is all too willing to use any means to achieve a goal and landlady Dottie also refuses to take responsibility for her actions. The character who most embodies “good people” is the young store manager, Stevie who grew up in the neighborhood. As for Mike and Kate — the verdict has to be mixed on them also; both are flawed characters.
Rub Ruggiero has directed this production with a sure hand. Erika Rolfsrud plays Margie with a seemingly perfect Boston Irish accent and the ability to land the jab while appearing totally innocent. When she accuses Mike of being “lace curtain” you can feel the malicious intent while she protests the opposite. She comes across as a street fighter who would knife you when your back it turned.
Mike is not quite her match as played by R. Ward Duffy. He is tightly wound and tense; he quickly realizes Margie has a passive-aggressive streak and he is on alert for what her true intent is. Chandra Thomas as Kate comes across at times like a spoiled brat — entitled and sometimes condescending. But she is so intent on the power struggle with Mike that she totally misreads Margie, who is not subtle.
As the landlady Dottie, Audrie Neenan is defensive and also oblivious while Megan Byrne as Jean is the instigator. Buddy Haardt as Stevie is the best natured and kindest of the characters and Haardt brings that out in the character.
Luke Hegel-Cantarella has created two very different communities with his set — the low rent Southie neighborhood and Mike’s posh and affluent suburban home.
So this brings us to my varied reactions on seeing this play for a second time. The first time was at Manhattan Theater Club production on Broadway with Frances McDormand as Margie, Estelle Parsons as the landlady and Tate Donovan as Mike. As we left that production and in the days following, we discussed it a lot. I felt more sympathy for Margie but I also felt more sympathy for Mike and Kate. My feelings had swung back and forth during the course of the production.
As I was watching this performance, my feelings were quite different. I’m not sure if it was because I knew the storyline of the play or if it was the performances. In this case I found Margie less sympathetic; she was manipulative and passive-aggressive. I also found Mike more defensive and Kate utterly annoying.
I cared less about these characters and therefore the manipulations of the author were more obvious. In the last scene of the play, he attempts to create a Doubt moment — an attempt for the audience to not know what is true as they leave the theater. But the preparation hasn’t been done so it came off this time as totally false.
So as I left TheaterWorks I was wondering who was “good people”? It was clear that almost no-one was.
Yet, you will find this a well acted and well directed production that may cause you to think about how those born into poverty escape and whose fault is it when they don’t.
Good People is at TheaterWorks 233 Pearl St., Hartford through June 28. For tickets call 860-527-7838.