Early in “Good People”, Huntington Theater Company’s current production of the play by local boy David Lindsay-Abaire, Johanna Day, in the central role of Margie Walsh, says of her high school boyfriend, “he was always good people”. It’s obvious that the playwright feels the same way toward his characters in this work; while they are far from perfect, he sees them as basically good people. Lindsay-Abaire, who once helped his father sell fruit across the street from the very theater presenting his latest play, has evident affection for them. It’s clear why this has become the most frequently produced play across the country this season, but equally clear that the play belongs here more than in any other venue, as he has recreated the pulse, the rhythm and above all the soul of the Southie he fondly but objectively recalls. Incredibly, this lasted a mere hundred performances on Broadway, despite earning such honors as the Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Tony nomination, for Best Play.
As superbly directed here by Broadway veteran Kate Whoriskey, this work should certainly find a more understanding audience. In the role of Margie (for which Frances McDormand won a Tony for the Broadway version), Day gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the world-weary single mom who’s been laid off, faces eviction, and is dealing with a developmentally challenged daughter. Lending her the kind of community support one only finds in a true ethnic and religious ghetto, local stalwarts Nancy E. Carroll as her landlady Dottie, and Karen MacDonald as her best friend Jean, amazingly together for the first time in their individual illustrious careers, complete the perfect trio. Their somewhat unholy alliance at their local parish hall bingo game is painfully accurate in the play’s spot-on depiction of those who by choice or chance are trapped in Southie, as opposed to those who’ve managed to find a way out.
Michael Laurence as the aforementioned boyfriend, now a successful fertility doctor living comfortably in Chestnut Hill, represents those who (as did playwright Lindsay-Abaire himself) escaped the confines of the ghetto, at least on the surface. When confronted with his real past by Margie, in the presence of his wife Kate (very well played by Rachael Holmes), a lot of buried baggage is disinterred. Questions of identity, fate and class in America, and the role of choices and luck, or the lack of either, are brought to the fore. Meanwhile, as all of the memories of relationships past are unearthed, it falls to Nick Westrate (memorable in off-Broadway’s triumph “Tribes”) as fellow bingo-player Stevie to reestablish faith in the basic goodness of people.
If this all sounds too heavily melodramatic, rest assured that it’s not; in fact, it’s hilariously truthful. Aided by a terrific technical team, from Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge to Costume Designer Ilona Somogyi to Lighting Designer Matthew Richards, this is as close to perfection as theater gets. While there is all too recognizable pain in the laughter, this is an extraordinarily fine-tuned balance of hysterical timing and thought-provoking writing. As Lindsay-Abaire has posited, there are good people in comfortable theater seats, as well as good people selling fruit in the streets, and there is always belief in the possibility for change. As one character puts it toward the end of the play, "something’ll come up”, to which Margie replies, “I hope so”. Bingo!