Addison — It’s tough to say whether the wave crashes late in Good People at WaterTower Theatre because of René Moreno’s directing or playwright David Lindsay-Abaire’s plot, but regardless these people will sneak up on you.
What spends most of its time as a deterministic defense of the working class evolves into an examination of noble choice. The lack of warning that there is such depth to the proceedings may lay at the director’s feet, but more likely the late shift in plot reveals the playwright’s true leaning. After all, the end may justify the journey, but you don’t take the scenic route if you don’t want people to take a good hard look.
The first of several fully realized locations courtesy of set designer Scott Osborne is the ignoble alley behind a dollar store where Margie (Jessica Cavanagh) has run out of chances. Her manager, Stevie (David Price) must let her go. Officially it’s for being habitually late, but Margie asserts it’s that she earns too much due to seniority. In a pride-killing process of reverse haggling, she offers to take less per hour, offering numbers sharply considered. She’s got a disabled adult daughter (the supposed cause of much of the tardiness) and she has to make enough to survive in this toughest of neighborhoods: south Boston. “Southie,” if you’re from there.
This prologue of sorts sets up the brass tacks of Boston’s south side as well as the brass balls required to live there. Margie knew Manager Stevie’s mom and isn’t shy about referencing the shared history of hard times in the neighborhood. After weathering a barrage of multi-colored manipulation, it’s clear that he has as little choice in the matter as she has left.
These are the Good People of the title who fight hard but hold no hard feelings. (Hard pronounced “Hahd,” of course.) There is little tenderness. Compassion is shown by a lack of caress: if you go soft on your friends, you make them soft. Strong breeds strong and that’s what it takes to survive. That’s why “Breakin’ your balls,” is an affectionate act. By that measure, Margie has a lot of love to give. And her friends give as good as they get.
Whether in the kitchen or at bingo, friend Jean (Michelle Courtney Schwartz) and landlady Dottie (Pamela Dougherty) bicker and bristle with no sign of leaving the table. The connection to this community is worn like a two-ton badge of honor. Big enough to hide behind but guaranteed to weigh you down, the seemingly all-powerful inertia overcoming initiative.
That’s why Mike (James Crawford), Margie’s former flame turned doctor, is such the hot topic. As the local boy made good, he provides a contrast to their cigarette-and-donut breakfast of champions, as well as, a chance for a job for Margie. With her customary bluster, she invades his office at the fertility clinic half looking for a job and half looking for an answer as to how their paths took such different turns. Though she leaves without either, she does guilt him into an invitation to his birthday party.
Though she later receives word that it’s canceled due to his sick daughter, she resolves to go anyway, expecting that that’s just an excuse. This sets up the climactic second act scene between the desperate protagonist, her old flame and his present wife, Kate (JuNene K.). In the living room of his spacious house, over wine and a variety of cheeses, they’ll retrace their paths and rehash their history weighing opportunity versus drive. Is he the victor and she the victim? Or will there finally be new cards on the table? And, the greater question, what makes for a “good person?”
This is a tough play about tough people that doesn’t translate effortlessly to the softer edged sensibilities of southerly audiences. And not just because of the accents. The sparring between Margie, Jean and Dottie doesn’t make for obvious friendly banter, down here. Not to say the acting isn’t spot-on, with Schwartz and Dougherty providing ample comic relief with their broad but believable characters.
It’s more a question of the chemistry between Cavanagh and Crawford. Director Moreno allows the brittle Southie attitude to get in the way, providing a buffer between them. There are fine moments individually, but they don’t fit together. Not unlike the unwieldy and poorly executed set.
The danger of an old flame is the attraction they represent. Despite the passage of time, the mysterious magnetic pull remains. Sentences dovetail together, silences portend and momentum builds like wheels on an unseen slope. There’s none of that here.
Margaret’s desperation as an unemployed working mom is real in the hands of Cavanagh. And, Crawford reaches equal intensity when Mike’s world is threatened. But the stakes of their former relationship hardly register. This becomes paramount as the final cards are turned over in the last scene revealing whom the “good people” really are. For a play so concerned with history, it’s surprising that this facet goes untended.
Without that layer it’s easy to get ahead of the play, catching the audience off guard when the wave comes in and things gets deep. Fortunately, a rising tide floats all boats and the characters grow greater in hindsight.
The final tableau at the bingo table becomes almost a monument to the resilient hope of the working class.