Two kinds of folks populate David Lindsay-Abaire’s ironically titled Good People, which opens at GableStage at 8 p.m. Saturday. It isn’t that the characters are divided into good people and bad ones. Just about everyone in the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s 2011 Broadway hit is colored some shade of gray when it comes to behavior.
What sets Good People apart is that it explores class differences in a way few American plays do. On one side are the working-class residents of Southie, the South Boston neighborhood that most will call home from cradle to grave. On the other are an ex-Southie fertility doctor and his attractive younger wife, a self-described “comfortable” couple accustomed to the finer things in life.
Director Joseph Adler offers one example of that class divide, an extravagant array of cheeses that the doctor’s wife serves a blue-collar woman from her hubby’s past..
“It’s not an accident that [Lindsay-Abaire] put a cheese plate in the play. People with money can afford to have 17 kinds of bulls**t cheese that smell up the house,” he says. “When you’re living from day to day, you don’t have time to worry about cheese.”
The ascendant couple is played by Stephen G. Anthony as Mike, the doctor with a thriving practice, and Renata Eastlick as Kate, a Boston University literature professor who happens to be black. On the Southie side, Laura Turnbull is Margaret — or “Margie,” with a hard “g” — mother to the offstage character Joyce, a grown but childlike disabled daughter. Barbara Bradshaw plays Dottie, Margaret’s landlady and Joyce’s not-always-reliable caretaker, and Elizabeth Dimon is Jean, a plain-spoken pal and Bingo buddy to Dottie and Margaret. Clay Cartland plays Stevie, a Dollar Store manager backed into a corner by Margaret’s chronic tardiness. How he deals with the situation — reluctantly, he swears — launches yet another downward spiral in the life of a woman who’s barely scraping by.
Turnbull, Bradshaw, Dimon and Anthony are all Carbonell Award-winning South Florida actors. Cartland and the Carbonell-nominated Eastlick are hot young talents who work all over the region. As the actors juggled Boston accents, Lindsay-Abaire’s overlapping dialogue and bringing their characters to life, Adler called Good People Lindsay-Abaire’s best work. And he’s including the 2007 Pulitzer winner Rabbit Hole (about a couple mourning the death of their four-year-old son) in that assessment.
“This is very well-structured and written,” Adler says. “This play came from his past, but he didn’t feel ready to write it earlier. It’s a great leap forward in his career. Rabbit Hole isn’t as good. This is fully formed.”
Lindsay-Abaire, whose work includes the more absurdist Fuddy Mears and Kimberly Akimbo as well as the books for Shrek the Musical and High Fidelity, examines the confluence of choice, opportunity and fate in Good People; as Bradshaw and Eastlick note, the characters know all too well that life can change in an instant. The writing in the play is salty, funny and insightful, and some of the plot points — who fathered Joyce, for example — are open to debate.
“This talks about a lack of choice in a situation where there are no good choices,” Turnbull says. “And even the people who escape aren’t without their problems.”
Adds Anthony, “He leaves things open-ended enough that everyone walks away having the same crisis of conscience that Mike does. Or that Mike should.”
In the world of Good People, the guy who worked hard and got out is plunged back into his past by the woman whose decisions have taken her from one crisis to the next. The American dream worked for Mike but not for Margaret. And Adler believes that, in these new hardscrabble times, the audience will relate to the difficulties of transcending class and reinventing oneself.
“There has never been a time in American history where people are as locked in place as they are now,” he argues.