It’s a tall order to combine broad laughs, social commentary, and a melancholy, intimate, character-driven story.
But Good People – currently onstage at Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre through April 14 – succeeds with a subtle mastery.
When I was invited to attend Good People’s opening night last week, I was greeted by a “Welcome to South Boston” mural overlooking the back alley of a Dollar Store.
However, that mural may be one of the only welcoming things about Southie, the rough-around-the-edges neighborhood in Boston where Good People is set.
With more than enough poverty and even more layoffs to go around, life is hard-going in Southie. It’s challenge enough to survive, let alone escape, and a bit of luck or compassion can make the difference.
In speaking about Good People, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire once said:
“We have this myth that if you work hard, you can accomplish anything. It’s not a very American thing to say, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s true for a lot of people, but you need other things to succeed. You need luck, you need opportunity, and you need the life skills to recognize what an opportunity is.”
Margie Walsh has just about given up on escaping her fate in Southie. Month to month she scrambles to make rent while single-handedly supporting her handicapped adult daughter.
In the Dollar Store back alley that Good People opens on, Margie is fired from her job as a cashier. Refusing to get a line job at the neighborhood’s Gillette factory, she looks up ex-boyfriend Mike Dillon who escaped Southie and “made good” as a fertility doctor.
It took a few scenes for Good People to draw me in. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the individual characters: the coarse but compassionate Margie, her snarky bingo buddy Jean, Margie’s exasperated boss Stevie, and her meddling, crafty landlady Dottie.
But it wasn’t until Margie’s first confrontation with Mike that these compelling characters began to click with one another. And from then on, the play worked very well – worthy of its 2011 Tony Award nomination for Best Play.
Zoey Martinson’s depiction of Mike’s wife Kate, introduced in the second act, freshened up the dynamic even more. Although the doctor’s young wife could have been portrayed merely as a nagging speedbump between Margie and the life she wants, Kate is genuine and unpretentious, if not a little naive.
She’s a sympathetic foil to Margie, demonstrating that the grass is not necessarily greener.
As is usually the case with Cleveland Play House productions, Good People‘s well-thought-out set elevated the script’s themes of cultural divide.
I loved how the production used a brick facade in the first act to frame Margie’s humble basement apartment and Mike’s swanky office. The brick walls also demonstrated how isolated their lives were from each other.
When that wall then opened at the beginning of act 2 to reveal Mike and Kate’s stunning house, the audience couldn’t help but applaud at how impressive it was.
However, it never once distracted from the heart of the show about what makes someone “good people” – a quest that takes a surprising and bittersweet turn at the end.
Good People is on stage at the Allen Theatre until April 14 with performances Tuesday through Sunday.
The 60-minute performance humorously tells the story of two children forging a friendship across socio-economic and racial divides. Each performance is then followed by a visit from the artists that engages students in a youth-appropriate conversation about Good People’s issues.
Learn more about Good People and buy tickets at clevelandplayhouse.com/main-stage/good-people.