The One Who Got Away

''Good People'' is a highly entertaining, very funny and all-around insightful drama, painted with exquisite cultural detail

And it’s within this hardscrabble community that Margaret has been living a difficult, if predictable, existence. Her axis begins to tilt when she loses her job and her ability to pay rent for herself and her daughter. Egged on by girlfriend Jean, Margaret seeks out a long-ago ex-boyfriend who has returned to the area after having escaped the neighborhood for a life of education and now wealth. Margaret descends upon Mike at his office and though ostensibly there to ask for a job, they soon enter a barbed banter in which Mike reluctantly finds himself inviting Margaret to his birthday party, a large affair being thrown for him by his wife. When Margaret turns up at his affluent suburban home on the appointed evening, it doesn’t take long before she has upped the ante with Mike in a way that perhaps neither of them expected.

Inhabiting Margaret with supernatural insight and a comic timing to beat the band, Johanna Day makes this woman utterly and inexorably her own. With consummate skill and subterranean artistry, she captures the ready smile and quick words of a woman who has learned to mask a lifetime’s worth of anger and disappointment. It’s a face that says, ”Big deal, I saw it coming,” with each of life’s knocks. But as stoic as Margaret may be, Day ensures a view onto a far more complicated inner landscape. In her canny confidence, her searching eyes, Day delivers the Margaret that refuses to ”grow in a row,” even if it costs her.

The only downside here is that Day is so brilliant it is a challenge for the rest of the cast to keep up. Coming closest are Amy McWilliams as Jean, and Francesca Choy-Kee as Kate, Mike’s young and educated wife. As Margaret’s stalwart friend, Jean knows more about Margaret than she may ever reveal and McWilliams captures this silent dimension amid a nicely textured and skillfully comic portrayal of a raucous gal pal. And supporting role though she may be, McWilliams’s clear sense of Jean is indispensible in setting the cultural temperature here. Playing Kate with much layering and compellingly credible emotion, Choy-Kee does much to diminish the ever-so-slightly obviousness of her as device as well as evading the kind of cliché that the character might encourage.

Good People
starstarstarstarstar
To March 10
Arena Stage
Kreeger Theater
1101 6th St. SW
$55-$85
202-488-3300
www.arenastage.org

Never quite finding his connection with either Day or the Southie accent, Andrew Long nevertheless gives his Mike a memorable and effectively edgy presence; convincing as a man who harbors well-hidden angers and uncertainties. Similarly, as Dottie, Margaret’s landlady and sometime babysitter, Rosemary Knower cuts a comic figure and a formidable presence even if she never quite nails the accent or enough of the deadpan grim. Better with the accent, but not quite seedy enough (he’s a floor manager at a Dollar Store, after all) Michael Glenn slightly overplays at first but comes into his own with a quietly engaging turn as the put-upon Stevie.

But as good as the ensemble is, it is Day’s searingly memorable Margaret, growing best as she can from a crack in a South Boston sidewalk, who will haunt you.