Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N.Halsted St.
When: through Nov. 11
By ANNE SPISELMAN
As you might suspect, the title of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” is deeply ironic.
Or is it?
In Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s vividly acted production of this kitchen sink drama savvily directed by K. Todd Freeman, most of the characters genuinely seem to be trying to do the right thing, at least as they see it. The problem is that the complexity of these economically challengedtimes makes determining what’s right difficult and acting on it practically impossible, or so Lindsay-Abaire posits. He also tackles the question of whether people who fail to pull themselves up by their bootstraps are responsible for their own misfortune or victims of circumstance.
The evening starts with a punch to the gut that could easily be playing out all over the country these days. Margaret (Mariann Mayberry), a middle-aged lower-class woman in South Boston‘s Lower End, has been called out to the alley behind the dollar store where she works by Stevie (Will Allan), the manager and son of her deceased best friend. He’s firing her for being chronically late to work, though he blames his superiors. She pleads that she has to wait for the sitter for her developmentally disabled adult daughter to show up and even offers to take a pay cut and work for as little as the newgirl — to no avail. It’s a painful encounter conjuring embarrassment for Margaret’s humiliating position and a touch of pity for Stevie.
Unfortunately, the taut momentum of the opener doesn’t carry through to the succeeding scenes. In fact, it only reemerges in the finale with a couple of clever twists that make us reexamine what’s gone before.
The playwright’s general method is to construct long conversations revealing varying degrees of discomfort and awkwardness among the participants. After Margaret is fired, we find her in her kitchen with her two best friends: highly animated Jean (Lusia Strus), the kind of woman men might call “a corker,” and sad-sack Dottie (Molly Regan), who also happens to be the always tardy sitter and Margaret’s landlady (upset enough by late rent payments to bring up the subject repeatedly). As they chat endlessly about how hard it is to get a job and the people they know who are trying, Jean mentions seeing Mike (Keith Kupferer), Margaret’s high school boyfriend who made it out of the ’hood and became a successful doctor.
Running out of options, Margaret decides to visit Mike at his office and ask for a job. Superficial cordiality soon gives way to increasing tension on both sides. She resents him for turning his back on “Southies.” He’s uncomfortable about their class differences and vaguely condescending about her coming to him for help. All he wants is for her to leave, but shegoads (or shames) him into inviting her to a party at his home in the wealthy Chestnut Hill area, where one of his friends might be able to offer her work.
Instead of moving directly to Mike’s house, the first act ends at the local bingo parlor. Stevie, a bingo fan, joins the trio of women at their table and adds insult to injury by winning. At the same time, Margaret gets a phone call from Mike saying the party has been called off because his daughter is sick, but she thinks he’s just saying that to keep her from going, so she shows up anyway.
“Good People” finally gets really interesting again when Margaret meets Kate (Alana Arenas), Mike’s highly educated, cultured, African American wife who at first mistakes her guest as the catering help, then bends over backwards to make up for her faux pas. But it’s the obvious friction between Kate and Mike that raises the stakes, along with the realization that revelations about Margaret’s past with Mike could profoundly affect all three of their lives.
I won’t give away the plot, except to say that something that we think is a lie concocted to coerce Mike turns out to be the truth -maybe. There’s also an act of kindness from an unexpected source, adding a note of sweetness to a situation that’s pretty sour overall.
The truth of the matter is that the play wouldn’t be half as impressive if the acting weren’t so good. Kudos go especially to Mayberry for a searing performance as a mature woman at the end of her rope and to Arenas for the deliciously calm and collected way she navigates through a potential interpersonal minefield. Walt Spangler’s sets, which range from gritty back alley to upscale living room, put everything in the perfect context.