A Very Good Production of Good People at TheaterWorks

By Amy J. Barry

Are people essentially good but prone to make bad choices when they’re pushed up against the wall and see no other way out?

Yes, is the message in Good People, a top-notch production at TheaterWorks by David Lindsay-Abaire, painstakingly directed by Rob Ruggiero.

The comedy/drama is about the haves and have-nots and the difficult choices people are faced with in order to break out of the old neighborhood, the cycle of poverty, in order to achieve the American Dream, to be seen as successful, versus a victim of circumstances.

The play takes place in South Boston, referred to by its inhabitants as “Southie.” It could easily be any city in the U.S. minus the characters unmistakable Boston accents.

Margaret (Margie), played beautifully by Erika Rolfsrud, is the central character that raises the uncomfortable questions, shapes the action, and ultimately, the outcome of the play. A single, middle-aged mother, Rolfstrud captures her character’s complex make up of insecure, tough as nails, darkly funny, and big-hearted.

The play opens with Margie imploring her supervisor, Stevie (Buddy Haardt) at the Dollar Store not to fire her for being late to work once again. She couldn’t help it, the woman who watched her child was late, but his boss has made it clear that he has to let her go if he wants to keep his job.

Minus the next month’s rent money, Margie is faced with eviction by her upstairs landlord, Dottie, performed by Audrie Neenan, who also watches Margie’s daughter when she’s at work. It is slowly revealed that the daughter (who never appears onstage) is a disabled young adult.

Neenan’s Dottie, who makes Styrofoam rabbits and sells them for $5 each, is geeky, mischievous, full of bull, and downright funny. Just looking at her and her sarcastic expressions cracks up the audience. She plays wonderfully against Margie and the outspoken Jean, played by Megan Byrne. Hilarious scenes of the women playing bingo -- the only entertainment they can afford because it’s free -- are full of both good-natured jabs and nasty insults.

Jean suggests that Margie pays a visit to Mike, who got out of “Southie” and became a successful doctor, to see if he can give her a job in his office. She looks admiringly at a picture of his perfect family and makes wisecracks about his upscale digs in Chestnut Hill, but is unsuccessful at both getting him to laugh or giving her a job.

R. Ward Duffy is solid in his role as the initially cool and distant doctor, who becomes increasingly agitated with Margie for trying to make him face his past, acknowledge where he came from, and admit how much of his success was due to luck and circumstances -- not just hard work.

Margie calls Mike “Lace Curtain Irish.” “You think you’re better than other people,” she says. “So, I’ve lost my street cred?” he retorts, full well knowing the answer.

Mike begrudgingly invites Margie to a party that he cancels because his young daughter is sick. Margie comes anyway, thinking she’s the only uninvited guest and that the party is still on. But she’s wrong. When she arrives at the house, Mike’s African American wife Kate, played by Chandra Thomas, answers the door and thinking Margie’s the caterer’s assistant there to pick up the uneaten food, sends her to another door, and then profusely apologizes for her mistake.

Kate offers Margie a glass of red wine and asks her how it is. “How the heck should I know?” she answers honestly.

This brings up a lot of interesting class and race issues and stereotypes as Kate is far more educated and sophisticated than Margie, comes from a well-off family and appears somewhat naive about Margie’s dilemma. Although Thomas’s acting is fine, Kate’s role is the least defined in the play -- and it’s not all that clear what Lindsay-Abaire wants us to think about her.

The conversation heats up between Mike and Margie with Kate constantly changing who she’s defending -- Margie or Mike. Things get ugly when Margie suggests that Mike was the father of her daughter -- born 30 years earlier -- perhaps to get money out of him, perhaps to make him see who she really is, besides a two-month relationship at the end of high school. In this very tense and powerful scene, Mike “gets his Irish up” and shows that you really can’t leave your past behind.

Luke Hegel-Cantarella does a great job with the scenic design, contrasting act one in Margie’s depressing tenement apartment and church basement bingo parlor with act two in Mike and Kate’s bright and light, perfectly appointed, predictable living room.

Good People is a fascinating and important play that gives you a lot to ponder long after leaving the theater,

Good People is at Theaterworks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through June 28. Call 860-527-7838 for tickets or online at www.theaterworkshartford.org.

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