In 2011, I had the opportunity to see Good People on Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club and was quite impressed with David Lindsay-Abaire's Tony Award-nominated play and the outstanding acting of all involved. Judging by the success of the Broadway run, I knew it was only a matter of time for the country's major regional theatres to pick it up and include in in their upcoming seasons. It offers roles many actors can seek their teeth into and a compelling story that resonates with many Americans today as our country struggles with economic woes and an increasingly stratified society with many falling into the category of the 'working poor.' Arena Stage's decision to present this piece is a wise one even if it's expected; a mostly strong ensemble cast brings the relatable story to life on our local stage under the laudable direction of Jackie Maxwell.
With Good People, playwright David Lindsey-Abaire examines well-established stereotypes about wealth, class, upbringing, success and how those factors translate into how one is perceived as good or not. While the story he's chosen to use to explore these themes has some twists and turns along the way, it's fairly predictable. However, thanks to the richly drawn characterizations of all of the players, it is authentic, timely and ultimately compelling.
Good People considers the predicament of Margaret (Johanna Day) - an average member of the working poor class since birth. She's a high school dropout from South Boston who has been working at a dollar store to provide for herself and her mentally disabled adult daughter Joyce (who is never seen). When her manager Stevie (Michael Glenn) fires her for being late too many times, she's left with few options. Her landlord and friend Dottie (Rosemary Knower) needs her to pay rent so her fellow gregarious friend Jean (Amy McWilliams) advises her to reconnect with an old high school friend, Mike (Andrew Long) - one of the few they know who managed to get out of the South Boston projects he lived in as a youth. Now a successful doctor, he lives in (of all places) the upscale Chestnut Hill area of Greater Boston with his young and beautiful wife Kate (Francesca Choy-Kee). When the two old flames reconnect as Margie searches for a job, the two consider where they come from, who they are, and how their upbringings shaped who they are today and what they value. As they rehash past incidents and current predicaments, both make personal accusations against the other. Ultimately, this 'class clash' highlights larger social, economic, and cultural issues surrounding the increasingly wide gap between the lucky and the unlucky and the 'have and have-nots.'
Since the story presented is ultimately Margaret's, it's imperative that a strong, believable gritty actress is cast in that role. Tony Award-nominee Day mostly rises to the occasion. From her physical mannerisms to her line delivery choices (complete with an undeniable South Boston accent), she completely embodies the lower working class Margaret and ultimately gives a commanding performance, particularly in the second act as she enters Mike's new world. Other standouts include Amy McWilliams - she's the perfect sidekick and is quite believable as a 'loud mouth know-it-all' who has experienced life and is not afraid to hurt someone's feelings if it's needed to make a point - and Andrew Long. Long has just enough edge that one can believe Mike had a rough upbringing but is also quite comfortable in his current upper middle class world. He's most effective when playing off Day and any scene they have together - particularly their final confrontation - is worth the price of admission. Rounding out the ensemble, Choy-Kee and Glenn bring a good deal of humor and self-awareness to their roles that ultimately makes their performances mostly memorable while Knower fails to rise to the occasion to play the eccentric neighbor Dottie. While she did hit some laugh lines, others did not receive the reaction they should have received. Ultimately, McWilliams upstages her in every scene.
While the actors do well to highlight the socio-economic predicament of each of their characters in a believable way - a necessity for this play to work - the sets (Todd Rosenthal) and costumes (Linda Cho) also are essential ingredients to highlight these crucial details in an authentic way. Authentic dialects (Anita Maynard-Losh) also enhance this believability.
And that's what this Arena Stage production is - believable. That's a good thing.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes including an intermission.
Good People runs through March 10, 2013 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre - 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at 202-488-3300 or online.