The One Who Got Away

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

By Kate Wingfield
Published on February 14, 2013, 6:31am | Comments

If there is a way to think of Margaret, the indefatigable protagonist of David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, it might be with the words of columnist Doug Larson who said, ''A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.''

For although Margaret – born, bred and permanently embedded in her working-class South Boston neighborhood – has learned to navigate the meager opportunities and bad luck of poverty, she has also evolved an oblique kind of thinking. It has a stubbornness to it; an aspect of rationalizing, despite a smart, sometimes cunning mind. And although this rationalizing may often parallel reality, it has also allowed for the quiet solidification of a very private, virtually subconscious personal myth. It is a sense of self that even as it fortifies the daily struggle, might nevertheless serve as a subtle form of self-sabotage. If she has all the answers then there is nothing to regret, but also nothing to change. It is the coping mechanism that has allowed a keen (if uneducated) intellect to survive itself. And if she will be cruel to protect it, does that make her a bad person? And what of those tantalizing moments when Margaret asserts what is both the truth and what she needs to believe? Who gets to decide such moral high ground?

Good People

Good People

(Photo by Margot Schulman)

Beautifully identified and crafted, Margaret exists at the heart of what also happens to be a highly entertaining, very funny and all-around insightful drama, painted with exquisite cultural detail. A South Boston native himself, Lindsay-Abaire delivers an expression of his world with an authenticity that resonates whether you know this ''other'' Boston (or its suburban refuges) or not. But it's not about dropping the R's or noting the references. It's about the cadence and rhythms of a claustrophobically tight-knit community that has, with brute certainty, decided to be nobody's fool. Lindsay-Abaire has caught it all. The only question is whether any given production can deliver it. This one does.

Embracing the vision as if she's lived it, director Jackie Maxwell keeps a tempo and time as witty as the play itself and lets the naturals fly. Equally simpatico, designer Todd Rosenthal's cramped and gloomy houses, nighttime windows lit with analog television blue, and interiors limping along with '70s-era Colonial kitsch, are potently suggestive of the quiet poverty in this back end of Boston. An evocation of settled neglect, he gives us houses carrying apartments filled with families, the unemployed and the elderly. No one can afford to make the windows shinier or the siding better.

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.