By Martin F. Kohn
There’s a rueful old joke about how people in Harlem in the 1930s never knew there was a Depression. Substitute Recession for Depression and the same might be said of South Boston in the 2010s, the hardscrabble neighborhood that Margie Walsh calls home in what may be the great play of the 21st century so far: David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People.” Director David Wolber gives it the production it deserves at Performance Network.
Rooted in place and time, “Good People” resounds far and deeply; even if you’ve never suffered a devastating job loss or been close to someone who has, you’re hooked. And as the play begins Margie (short for Margaret and pronounced “Mahggy” with a Boston accent and a hard “g”) isn’t just losing a job, she’s losing a job at a dollar store. It may not be rock bottom, but it’s a couple streets away.
OK, I’ve given away a slight secret but the attentive playgoer will catch on almost immediately; playing Margie, Suzi Regan works up a convincing case of restless leg syndrome and delivers her lines with a desperate energy, as if by talking and talking she won’t ever have to hear what her boss is about to tell her.
It’s a strong opening scene, beautifully directed, with tension and pathos and what Margie herself might call a bleepload of humor (only she wouldn’t say bleep).
That’s the thing about “Good People.” It has enough laughs to qualify as a comedy, enough working-class realism to qualify as kitchen sink drama, enough hard luck to flirt with tragedy, sufficient plot to keep an audience wondering what will happen next.
The intrigue kicks off when Margie’s pal Jean (the scene-stealing MaryJo Cuppone) mentions that Mikey Dillon (Alex Leydenfrost), Margie’s old friend (possibly more than that) who escaped from Southie to become a doctor, is back in town. Maybe he’d have a job for her. What ensues is a multifaceted clash – of past and present, of classes, of outlooks on life, of good and…less good.
Class is a major theme of “Good People,” economic, yes, but also class in the sense of who does the right thing even at personal cost. Luck, too, is prominent, especially the role luck plays in determining someone’s future; it’s no coincidence that bingo, the essence of luck, is the major entertainment for Margie and her friends.
Mike worked hard and became a successful physician. Margie worked hard and became an unemployed dollar store cashier. In a particularly affecting speech Margie rattles off a set of circumstances that explains how skipping a meal to save a little money led to losing a job.
Regan, with a convincing Boston accent and a vibrant physical presence, is the glue that holds the play together. No matter what befalls her, Regan’s Margie never, ever feels sorry for herself. Leydenfrost’s Mike is at home in his upper class surroundings, his Southie accent left far behind, except for occasional flare-ups when Margie gets his goat. Qamara “Peaches” Black ranges from coquettish to fierce as Mike’s much younger wife, Kate. And Cuppone seems like the genuine article as Jean, part-time banquet waitress, fulltime loyal friend, lifetime South Boston resident.
Daniel C. Walker’s inventive set does quintuple duty as cityscape, working-class kitchen, church bingo hall, doctor’s office and upscale living room. Costume designer Christa Koerner garbs everyone appropriately, from Margie’s dated party dress to Jean’s low-cut Red Sox T-shirt.
And Wolber and whoever else may have worked on dialect certainly nailed the accents. I used to live in that part of the country and it felt mighty familiar.
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through March 31. 2 hours. $27-41. 734-663-0681. http://www.PerformanceNetwork.org