Stage review: 'Good People' adept in capturing life's jams


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She's a tough one, that Margie Walsh, but a string of bad luck is testing the single mom's Southie spirit. She has just lost her dollar-store job, and her landlord is hinting at eviction for her and her disabled daughter. In her 47 percent world, where daily choices might be a dentist visit or the rent money, it seems as though there's no one to throw her a lifeline. Into that scenario, best pal Jean confides that she recently has encountered Margie's former boyfriend, Mike Dillon -- Doctor Dillon, now.

Jean pushes Margie to visit Mike and ask for a job, and Margie is just desperate enough to do it. Besides, "I always said Mikey was good people," she reasons.

'Good People'

Where: Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown.

When: Through Dec. 9. 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (2 p.m. only Dec. 9); also 2 p.m. Dec. 6 (no performance Nov. 22).

Tickets: $23-$55; 412-316-1600 or ppt.org.

"Good People," the play making its Pittsburgh Public Theater debut, embeds the audience in Margie's shoes, where she stomps through a seemingly inescapable cycle of ignorance, poverty and despair. With only attitude and words to fight back against the world crashing in around her, Margie spews gallows humor and large doses of bitterness, whatever it takes to get her through the day with an ounce of hope.

David Lindsay-Abaire's "Good People" hits like a bull's-eye, coming along when economic times mesh with the protagonist's oft-repeated plea: "I just need a job."

In Margie, the playwright has written a gift for an actress -- Frances McDormand rode the role to a Tony last year. For the local production, Kelly McAndrew has reunited with director Tracy Brigden (they collaborated on "Precious Little" last year at City Theatre) to take us along on Margie's ride of escalating desperation.

Ms. McAndrew exudes strength and vulnerability from the moment her emotional roller coaster takes off. The play opens when she is called before her boss -- Stevie, the young son of her late friend -- and fired for constant lateness, the result of her daughter's tardy caretaker.

Stevie (Paul Terzenbach) is sympathetic to her plight, but his hand has been forced by higher-ups. He's also out of his depth with Margie, who delivers double-edged blows of guilt and humiliation before storming out.

Backed into a corner, Margie tends to find a vulnerable target and strike at its heart. She needs Mike to help her find a job, but she can't help resenting his escape from the neighborhood trenches, and the resentment shows.

"Have you become mean?" Mike asks.

Well, if it takes being mean or worse to take care of herself and her daughter, she's willing and able.

Among the six-person cast, Ms. McAndrew's Boston accent is the most consistent and believable. As Mike, reliable David Whalen makes the most of a meaty, complex role, often with just a meaningful look. It makes sense that his Southie accent pushes through only here and there, undermining his "lace curtain" status, as Margie calls it.

Mike had put the old neighborhood in his rearview mirror. So his discomfort is palpable when Margie intrudes on his present. She shows up at his office to plead for a job, and he obviously wants none of it. The conversation is polite at first.

He says he's usually busier as a reproductive endocrinologist. "I don't know what that is," Margie says, not for the last time when talking to Mike. The fertility doctor tries to reminisce with her, but she reminds him of buried memories and writes off his accomplishments to the luck of having a father at home.

When it's revealed that his young wife is throwing him a birthday party, Margie guilts him into an invitation, hoping someone from among his lace-curtain friends might have a job for her. He calls to say the party has been canceled due to his daughter's illness, but Margie doesn't believe him. She arrives at his home for an Act II confrontation with Mike and his unhappy wife, Kate (January LaVoy), pulling back layers to reveal an imperfect marriage and indiscretions that land like body blows.

Margie has arrived at this doorstep with help from her well-meaning bingo-playing support group of Jean and landlord Dottie, who egg her on with cringe-worthy advice. Dotty Dottie (Glynis Bell) would be total comic relief if not for the fact that Margie pays her $50 to watch her daughter, but Dottie's tardiness has cost Margie her job. Helen Coxe is less flashy but endearingly feisty as Jean, who wants what is best for Margie.

Jeff Cowie's inventive set slides characters and furnishings onto and off the O'Reilly Theater's thrust stage through openings in a wall of commercial signs. For Mike and Kate's home, a large opening becomes a picture window, revealing greenery and suggesting property that Margie can only dream of. Furnishings are understated except for an ostentatious vase that seems as out of place as the $5 Styrofoam bunny Margie brings as a gift.

Ms. Brigden, artistic director of City Theatre, has left the South Side for the second time to work at Ted Pappas' Public Theater. Her empathy for the characters is obvious, and she has gathered a tight company of actors who pace their energies, building toward outbursts of anger and revelation.

Mr. Lindsay-Abaire's play packs in a slate of issues facing everyday Americans, focuses on one woman's struggles and, clever fellow, slaps the title "Good People" on it. He makes his case, but the judgment call is yours.

theaterreviews

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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