Margaret knows zilch about French cheeses, boutique wines, or getting from inner-city Boston to the city’s ritzy suburbs. When anxious, she tends to motor-mouth. Her wisecracks are a little crude and nasty at times. Her thrift-store wardrobe isn’t chic.
But if you think you know Margaret from her rather off-putting introduction to us in the first scene of David Lindsay-Abaire’s sharply insightful Broadway serio-comedy, “Good People,” you don’t.
In Seattle Repertory Theater’s astute, snappy rendition of this valuable play, smartly directed by David Saint, Ellen McLaughlin tears into the meaty role of this beleaguered Southie (South Boston) single mom. Lanky, with gray hair chopped close, scrappy yet vulnerable, she keeps revealing new layers of Margaret — the abrasiveness, yes, but also the bravery, fear, battered pride and unrewarded generosity.
As author Barbara Ehrenreich (“Nickel and Dimed”) has observed, “The poor have disappeared from the culture at large, from its political rhetoric and intellectual endeavors as well as from its daily entertainment.”
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Working stiffs scraping by were once admired, even mythologized as the salt of the earth. Steeped in the sardonic survival humor that keeps people going in rough times, Lindsay-Abaire’s play brings us closer to the socio-economic gap that pop culture now mostly ignores — the gap between achievers of the affluent American dream, and the multitudes who are one emergency dental visit away from destitution.
“Good People” personalizes the statistics behind that widening divide by having the luckless Margaret, after getting fired by a boss half her age (Eric Riedmann) from a low-wage job in that painful opening scene, trespass briefly on the other side.
A native Southie, Lindsay-Abaire knows the voices and culture of Margaret’s world of kaffeeklatsches and church bingo games. As she kibitzes with feisty pal Jean (Marianne Owen) and shrewdly foggy landlady Dottie (Cynthia Lauren Tewes), Margaret’s dilemma comes into stark relief. Jobs are scarce, she’s middle-aged, bills are mounting, her severely disabled daughter needs constant tending.
Out of desperation she seeks work from a former Southie, who escaped the ’hood to become a successful doctor. And “Good People” shifts from kitchen-table bull session to tense cultural clash fretted with surprises.
That old boyfriend, Mike (John Bolger), still likes to flaunt his Southie street cred, but his upscale doc’s life is as foreign to Margaret as a martian’s would be. What he calls “comfortable” is by her standards, filthy rich. And when she bursts into his office, Mike shifts from warily welcoming to aggrieved and hostile — especially after she brands him “lace curtain Irish” (a social climber).
“Good People” raises the discomfort level acutely when Margaret shows up at Mike’s posh home to press her case further. In one of the play’s sly stereotype-busting gambits, Mike’s wife (played with flair by Zakyia Young) is a sophisticated African-American academic — and far less condescending to Margaret than her rattled spouse is.
It’s textbook American drama that suspicions, confrontations and revelations will tumble out of an encounter this loaded. But what’s uncommon is the play’s recognition of several elephants in the room: race, class, pride, cowardice, and the underlying national debate over why some climb out of poverty and others are stuck in it like it was quicksand.
What part does luck play in upward mobility? And gender? And parenting? What do you owe people you leave behind, if you “make it”?
McLaughlin’s powerful, multihued turn anchors the Rep’s “Good People” (a coproduction with George Street Playhouse in New Jersey). She gets solid backup from the rest of the ensemble — especially Owen, Tewes and Young. Bolger, while effectively smarmy and combative, makes Mike almost entirely unsympathetic — an easy pitfall to be sure, when the play’s sympathy lies so squarely with the underdog.
A word about the arresting photo backdrops in the James Youmans set: these projections of the Boston skyline are like a sociological Google map, pinpointing the geography of the haves and have-nots.