When a well-known politician recently made some off-the-cuff remarks about a certain 47% of Americans he essentially considers free-loading bums, one American who’d surely have a word or two to say to him would be Margaret Walsh, the protagonist of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, currently America’s most-produced play—and a great one at that, as its San Diego premiere at the Old Globe Theatre makes abundantly clear.

 50ish Margie (the “g” in her name is as hard as her will to survive the mean streets of South Boston) finds herself jobless after Stevie, the son of a childhood friend and manager of the local Dollar Store where Margie’s been cashiering, fires her from her $9.20 an hour job, despite her pleas that he give her an eighth warning instead of a pink slip. What Stevie’s boss (and the abovementioned politician) would likely see as excuses for Margie’s perpetual tardiness—a mentally retarded adult child cared for by a landlady whose frequent sleeping in causes Margie to arrive an hour late—she herself sees as nothing more than the unavoidable realities of an unlucky life.

Unwilling to take Stevie’s suggestion that she apply for line work at the local Gillette factory, Margie decides to pay a visit on a high school boyfriend, one who luck will have it has escaped from “Southie” to a successful medical practice, marriage to a considerably younger literature professor at Boston University, their five-year-old daughter, and an elegant home in the posh neighborhood of Chestnut Hill.

When Dr. Mike declares himself unable to offer Margie a job (she is, after all, unqualified for any kind of medical office work), his feisty ex-sweetheart wangles an invitation to his upcoming birthday party in hopes that one of the assembled guests might have a line on a possible job. A phone call from Mike informing Margie that his daughter’s illness has forced the party to be cancelled seems too convenient to be true, and Margie decides to attend anyway.

What she finds when she arrives at Mike’s suburban manse makes for Good People’s edge-of-your-seat second act.

 Figuring prominently in Act One (and in Good People’s humdinger of a coda) are Margie’s elderly landlady Dottie and her longtime best friend Jean, whose frequent bingo nights at the local parish offer the ladies and Stevie the chance to dish over the latest gossip and rehash memorable past events.

Good People proves a more than worthy follow-up to Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Hole, and like his previous dramedy, manages to bring up serious issues while never sacrificing entertainment value or accessibility.

At its heart, Good People is an examination of the roles luck and hard work play in an individual’s personal, professional, and monetary success, themes which seem particularly appropriate in this election year. Whereas Mike would chalk his achievements up to hard work and ambition (and in so doing blame Margaret’s failures on her seeming lack of either), Margie sees much of Mike’s success as the result of his having happened to have a father who pushed his son to study—and in one life-altering moment, having happened to be looking out the window on a particularly fateful night. Representing the reverse side of the coin is Maggie’s life, one in which a single piece of peanut brittle could set off a bad luck spiral leading to a repossessed car and ultimately to this latest in a string of lost jobs.

 Lindsay-Abaire provides no easy answers to the above questions. On the one hand, he offers the extreme bad-luck example of Margie’s childhood friend-turned-bag lady Cookie McDermott who ended up dead in the Southie streets. On the other hand, Mike would surely insist that hard work played a major role in his success along with a vision of life’s possibilities, the diametric opposite of what he would likely categorize as Margie’s defeatist attitude.

One of Good People’s many wonders is its ability to provoke thought (my plus one and I spent a good hour talking about the play on the drive back to L.A.) while providing two of the most compelling—and entertaining—hours I’ve spent in a theater. It’s also a play you will likely want to see more than once, the reason for which you will figure out in its final moments.

A cast of New York-based actors joins a Southern California treasure in bringing Good People to gritty, gripping life under Paul Mullins’ direction, terrific in all ways but one. (For its one flaw, see the discussion of scenic design found below.)

Eva Kaminsky is a marvel as Margy in a bold, gutsy, multi-hued performance sure to be remembered as one of the year’s finest. Watching Kaminsky, you have the feeling of seeing someone who has literally had the colors washed out of her until she’s just a shadow of the hopeful young woman she once was. On the other hand, watch out when Margy launches one of her passive aggressive arrows, inevitably followed by a “Just kidding” or “I’m just bustin’ balls” that don’t sound quite sincere. Kaminsky’s Margy is most definitely not a woman to tangle with, making it even more heart-wrenching when she humiliates herself to no avail.

 Silver fox R. Ward Duffy makes for a vital, charismatic Mike, his scenes opposite Kaminsky positively crackling with dramatic tension and decades of repressed anger and resentment. Nedra McClyde captivates as Mike’s wife Kate, a young woman whose upper-crust upbringing is as far removed from her husband’s as imaginable, a character made even more interesting by the fact that Lindsay-Abaire has made her African-American. James McMenamin is not only excellent as put-upon good guy Stevie, like Kaminsky he looks as if he could have stepped onto the stage straight from Southie, and the same can be said about Carol Halstead’s hard-edged but loyal-to-a-fault Jean. Finally, in the role of Dottie, there is Old Globe associate artist Robin Pearson Rose, a Scenie-winning Best Featured Actress for her role in the Old Globe’s August Osage County, once again vanishing into a great character role and nailing it to steely perfection.

This production’s design stars are Denitsa Bliznakova’s terrific character/class-appropriate costumes (with a special tip of the hat for Margy’s dingy, dowdy “party dress”) and the unbilled wig whiz who designed Jean’s and Dottie’s oh-so-authentic, character-defining dos. Of equal importance is voice and dialect coach Jan Gist, who has given her cast those rough South Boston vowels. (In one particularly well-acted scene, Duffy’s Mike reverts tellingly to his Southie vocal roots when confronted with an angry, obstinate Margy.)

Fitz Patton’s excellent sound design features high-adrenaline mood music between scenes, and an expert Chris Rynne lights each scene for maximum effectiveness.

Somewhat of a minus is Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design, if only because the Sheryl and Harvey White theater’s in-the-round setup precludes the fully-detailed Act One grit and Act Two opulence a proscenium set would have allowed. Still, what Schweikardt’s design lacks in luxury it does gain in intimacy, with no audience member further than five rows from the stage. More problematic for the audience is the fact that director Mullins has not found ways to prevent characters’ backs from being turned towards a quarter of the seats for overly long periods of time. Whether you get the benefit of seeing someone’s face depends on which of the four sides you end up sitting on. (I missed a lot of Rose’s and McClyde’s acting for this reason, while someone else might have missed out on Kaminsky’s oh-so expressive face and eyes.)

Alison Cote is stage manager.

Not having caught the Geffen’s much lauded L.A. production earlier this year, there was no way I was going to let Good People at the Old Globe pass me by. Thank goodness I didn’t. The nationwide popularity of David Lindsay-Abaire’s latest is indeed justified, and if you happen to harbor doubts, a day trip to San Diego will make a believer in Good People out of you too.

Old Globe Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
October 16, 2012
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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