While race and gender factor into the surprising plot of David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Good People, economic inequality takes center stage. In the production at GableStage, director Joe Adler’s top-notch cast offers a searing look at class divisions in the U.S.
When dollar store manager Stevie (Clay Cartland) fires Margie (Laura Turnbull) for habitual tardiness, it propels her into a desperate search that eventually leads to the upscale office of her old friend and ex-boyfriend, Mike (Stephen G. Anthony). Behind on rent and out of options, Margie hopes that Mike, a successful fertility doctor, will be able to help her find a job.
Mike and Margie were both born and raised in “Southie,” a poor, rough-and-tumble neighborhood in South Boston. Mike went away to college and never looked back. Margie still struggles to eke out a living while caring for her severely developmentally disabled adult daughter. Although Margie and Mike have followed very different paths, their lives become intertwined in a thickening plot of veiled intentions and mixed messages.
The first half of the play establishes Margie’s troubles, but it also sets a tone of irreverent humor, made even funnier by the thick Bostonian accents. Dottie (Barbara Bradshaw) is funny as Margie’s wacky landlord, and Elizabeth Dimon is hilarious as Jean, Margie’s outspoken, foul-mouthed friend. The comedy and camaraderie of Good People’s first half make the play’s intense second act all the more hard hitting.
Joe Adler directs Good People with a sharp ear for the play’s riveting dialogue, which strikes a balance between deadpan, deeply sarcastic barbs and uninhibited insults and rants. Turnbull and Anthony exhibit spot-on timing and an explosive, antagonistic chemistry. Margie baits Mike at every turn, pushing him to reveal the person he was when they were young and the man he’s become. When Mike asserts that his hard work has made him successful and that Margie simply made some bad choices, she snaps: “You made some wise choices, but it doesn’t mean everyone else had them.”
At the heart of their debate is the archetype of the American dream and the illusion it harbors about choices. Good People poses important questions, but offers no easy answers: To what extent is wealth a combination of hard work, determination, resources and dumb luck, and to what extent is poverty the absence of these factors?
Renata Eastlick rounds out the cast as Kate, Mike’s young, attractive wife who happens to be black. Kate’s role as a young intellectual professional gives the play a more contemporary feel, and her status as an outsider — she’s not from Southie — lets the audience see the play’s conflicts through a wider lens.
Good People is not just a timely play about poverty in the U.S. It is a thought-provoking look at how differently Americans perceive that poverty.