Worcester Telegram & Gazette
It’s not easy to pass judgment on Margaret, or “Margie,” as she’s called by her neighborhood cronies — the down-on-her-luck, working-class single mother of a mentally challenged 30-year-old daughter — that ignites “Good People,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s wickedly funny, sometimes lacerating play, which kept the Singh Performance Center audience in rapt attention on Friday evening.
Mostly set in Lindsay-Abaire’s formative neck of the woods, South Boston, referred to as “Southie” by its inhabitants, it’s a world populated by people who have never had the means to venture beyond the neighborhood, squeezing by from paycheck to paycheck playing bingo and gossiping with strategic maliciousness to pass the time.
It may be set in a specific milieu, but it resonates far beyond the borders of the bingo parlor, where Margie (Lida McGirr), Dottie (Bunny Porter) and Jean (Carol Allard Vancil) hope to augment their meager finances – and in Margie’s case, win a few extra bucks to pay the rent.
Pilgrim Soul Productions has staged this social-class barn burner under Matthew J. Carr’s customarily astute, keenly excavating perception, with comically roiling, psychologically penetrating and emotionally complex superiority. And he’s cast it with actors who know exactly what to bring to the table.
In McGirr’s splendidly kaleidoscopic portrayal of her, Margie is a middle-aged bundle of endlessly revolving paradox — scrappy, foul-mouthed, emotionally vulnerable, manipulative, self-defeating, imploring, despairing, tender, embarrassing, devious, nasty, opportunistic. When we first meet her, she’s informed by her boss, Stevie (Alex Wersted, giving an excellent, firmly understated performance), that he’s firing her for being late to work at the Dollar Store too many times to count.
Resorting to emotional blackmail to keep her job, Margie reminds him that she’s known him since he was a boy, was friends with his mother, knows who he’s dating and what people say about him behind his back. She begs him to keep her on, claiming she had no one to watch over her daughter, but Stevie is tired of her excuses, and as much as he hates having to let her go, he’s not willing to jeopardize his own job. She then sabotages herself with racist comments about another employee and accusations of wage discrimination, a pattern of self-defeating behavior that she’s incapable of avoiding throughout the play.
It’s Margie’s gift for pushing buttons in uncomfortable ways, and her zigzag tactics, that leads Mike Dillon (Gary Swanson), an old friend whom she dated for two months when they were 17, to describe her as a master of passive aggression, when she shows up, uninvited, at his doctor’s office. It was Jean’s idea to have Margie ask Mike, who escaped a lifetime of soul-sucking ennui in the old neighborhood to become a well-off fertility doctor, for a job.
What Margie does so deceitfully is to spark convivial small talk into a combustible flame of guilt-inducing accusation, by referring to Mike as “lace-curtain Irish.” In Swanson’s terrifically calibrated performance, you see Mike wince at this label, trying his best not to appear snobby and retain his composure. It’s not easy, though, when Margie keeps bringing up the ghosts of the past, chipping away at Mike’s skittish attempts to keep those faded memories from rearing their unpleasant heads, including the insinuation that he’s the father of her daughter.
But this contretemps is a mere prelude to the fireworks that dominate Act 2, which takes place mostly in the posh Chestnut Hill home of Mike, and his striking African-American wife, Kate (imparted with wonderfully instinctive awareness by Shani Farrell), a literature professor at Boston University. It must be noted here that set designer Alan Standrowicz has created a marvelous dichotomy of semi-impoverished South Boston and swank Chestnut Hill, converting a rundown kitchen and bingo room into a marbled wall parlor that Margie, with an envious sneer, calls “comfortable.”
Refusing to believe that Mike has postponed a party he very reluctantly invited her to, because his 6-year-old daughter is sick, she shows up anyway, and it isn’t long before she proceeds to create a schism between Mike and Kate. It’s an ugly, harrowing, extended diatribe of shifting alliances that McGirr, Swanson and Farrell address with riveting success. Dressed in spectacularly tacky outfits, Allard Vancil and Porter provide delicious comic relief as Margie’s bingo-playing pals, a couple of hens who thrive on gossip, but when push comes to shove, Dottie, who is Margie’s landlord, understandably puts her bank account ahead of friendship.
It’s up to the audience to judge for themselves what to make of these very human characters, since Lindsay-Abaire resolutely refuses to take sides. “Good People” is about the nature of fate, the perilous divide between poverty and comfort, whether we have the capacity to make choices, or if they’re beyond our reach. It’s a topic that seems as timely as ever in this remarkable production.
By Paul Kolas