Good People at GableStage: Great Cursing, Solid Performances
Laura Turnbull, Barbara Bradshaw, and Elizabeth Dimon in GableStage's production of Good People.
One of the most sublime pleasures of this Miami summer comes just before the intermission in GableStage's new production of Good People, when Jean, a track-suited Bostonian played by Elizabeth Dimon, takes to her feet in a bingo hall and bellows, "Cocksucker!"
It's delivered in a choleric "pahk the cahk in Hahvahd Yahd" accent with such life-affirming gusto that it will take all the restraint you can muster not to stand up and shout it back at her. Fortunately, if you do, given that the lights go on for the break, you won't be interrupting David Lindsay-Abaire's Tony-nominated play.
If Miami is thirsting for a seasonal tradition to rival Santa and the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, perhaps this is it. Picture Dimon astride LeBron James' shoulders during the annual Heat championship parade while screaming into a megaphone: "Cocksucker!" Or Dimon hip-checking TV meteorologist Julie Durda away from the hurricane-tracking map to announce the name of the first storm to make landfall... well, you get it.
The play deals with the tart resilience of people forced to the margins of society by a soured economy. Margie (Laura Turnbull) is a local beauty approaching middle age, fired from her job at a dollar store. She has little hope of finding a new job and is far behind on her rent payments to her frenemy landlady, Dottie (Barbara Bradshaw), whom Margie also pays to care for her mentally disabled adult daughter — though this mostly involves watching television and putting the daughter to work gluing together kitschy foam rabbits.
Margie looks for help from Mikey (Stephen G. Anthony), a successful doctor who made it out of the neighborhood and has recently returned to the Boston suburbs with his much younger wife (Renata Eastlick) and their daughter. Margie and Mikey are former lovers who have a history shot through with resentment and secrets, so she eventually decides he has lied to her and resolves to show up at his house.
William Faulkner made up Yoknapatawpha County. John O'Hara had Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. Lindsay-Abaire sets his story in the fictitious South Boston of Ben Affleck's creation, where everyone dresses in garish thrift store clothes that oblivious hipsters would purchase ironically and where unceasingly rapid chatter is punctuated by friendly insults rather than periods. But the tension in Good People doesn't build to a heist at Fenway Park. The theft occurred long before the curtain rose; Margie's hope for a comfortable life was stolen by circumstance. She dropped out of high school to have her baby and, after that, never had the chances that her old friend and lover Mikey had.
Aside from some references to the internet and the current minimum wage, Margie's world is one that exists largely outside any specific time, one in which the reference points are not pop cultural but local. The celebrities in her life are the heroes and villains of her South Boston neighborhood. There's Cookie McDermott, "the wino with the sun hat," and Remy Hayes, who is missing half his face ("such a good-looking kid," Dottie laments). Anything else is as foreign to her as the refrigerator full of imported, unpronounceable cheeses that Mikey's wife has ordered for a party at their house. "All I ever wanted," Margie says, is "a big house somewhere."
The limits of Margie's world are visually represented by the set, which in the first act comprises only slightly more than a church bingo hall, Margie's kitchen, and a garbage-strewn back alley. They have been laid end-to-end onstage as though this were one seamless place through which Margie and her friends blow like loose clover.
The first act is mired somewhat by an uncertain tone that teeters at times toward mockery of Margie and her friends. This is partly because the landlady Dottie is both a venal grotesque and the most vocal character onstage. Bradshaw plays Dottie with gluttonous zeal; her wolf-like, frothy jaw leaves Margie no choice but to invite her in. Turnbull's Margie is revealed to be a witty, brassy dame whose uncommon grace could, with a better wardrobe and set of opportunities, easily land her in a position of power and wealth. Dimon rolls her eyes with the agility of a boxer's feet and gloves, heaping snark on the proceedings from the comfort of her plastic chair.
The second act is one long scene in the living room of the well-appointed Chestnut Hill home shared by Mikey and his wife. It's here where the play really hums. Margie is no longer on the defensive but on the attack, reclaiming the acidity of her youth and fueled by the possibility of what could have been. It is as if her potential has been restored in this moment, and she shifts between brief periods of great generosity, vengeance, and adolescent blundering. The scene draws on many of the finer theatrical traditions, well-timed entrances and exits, constantly shifting interpersonal dynamics, and the offstage cries of a child. There's even a bar cart off to the side. At times, the tension threatens to break into incredulous caricature, but like Margie herself, it is able to hold itself together and transcend its circumstances to reach a subdued if unsteady triumph.
The play is not without flaws. The Irish fiddle electronica that saws and whizzes between scene changes might be a bit much, and the cast members wear their winter coats with a precarious unease like African villagers balancing jugs on their heads for the first time. There's also a tacked-on epilogue that doesn't do much for the play other than overstate and simplify things (though it does offer a welcome return appearance of Dimon).
Director Joseph Adler introduced the opening-night performance by calling the show "a piece that resonates for our time." Margie's story, though, is not one of a downturned economy but of a downturned society. It is not bound to any particular moment but to a cycle in which good people suffer when educational opportunities aren't evenly distributed and familial obligations come before personal advancement. Margie never expected life to be fair; she just wanted her life to be one in which she had some say as to how it might go.
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