By Daniel Skora
There are any number of large themes running through David Lindsay-Abaire’s play about a middle-aged woman from South Boston’s Lower End who’s been down-on her luck for so long it’s become hard for her to imagine there are any paths left that lead upward. Some of those deal with class, race, and poverty. Lesser ones spin off from them, like luck and honesty and compassion. But Lindsay-Abaire chose instead to gather his comedy/drama under the all-inclusive title “Good People”, which is currently being presented by the Open Book Theatre in a thoroughly enjoyable production.
The play revolves around Margaret (Linda Rabin Hammell), Margie as she’s called by those who know her. As the play opens, Margie is being fired from her job at the local Dollar Store for repeated tardiness. Margie desperately needs to keep her job: to pay the rent, for which she is currently in arrears, and to care for her mentally retarded daughter. But her pleas fall on deaf ears because Stevie (Bradley Michael), the store manager, is only acting at the behest of higher ups and will lose his own job if he doesn’t let her go.
Fortunately, Margie has friends with whom she can talk. There’s Jean (Jan Cartwright) from the neighborhood, and Dottie (Margaret Gilkes), her landlady who also babysits Margie’s daughter when she’s at work. All three meet regularly in Margie’s kitchen or at the bingo parlor. At one of their gabfests it comes out that Margie’s old high school boyfriend is back in town. Mike (Robert Schorr) had both the smarts and the good fortune to rise above his lowly beginnings as a Southie and became a fertility doctor. He’s moved nearby to the ritzy section of Chestnut Hill with his wife and daughter, and Margie’s friends convince her to drop by his office to see if he may have a job for her or, at least, be able to help her find one.
Margie decides to do just that. But when she shows up unannounced at the doctor’s office, Mike seems a bit stand-offish. Though he seems glad to see she’s a South End survivor, it almost appears he’d rather be rid of her. The two take an uneasy stroll down memory lane, their conversation having all the earmarkings of a gathering skirmish rather than a reunion of old sweethearts.
Margie does not score a job from her former sweetheart, but she does receive an invitation to attend his birthday party given, albeit, reluctantly. Even though she’s received notice that the party’s been cancelled because of a sick child, she shows up anyway thinking that Mike changed his mind about having her over. She discovers that there really is a sick child and the party has actually been cancelled.
Mike’s wife Kate (K Edmonds, however, proves to be a gracious hostess and tries to mitigate the awkwardness with, polite conversation, expensive wine and a cheese plate of gigantic proportions. Kate is an Afro-American woman which will become an important consideration as the evening progresses. She is also clueless about her husband’s growing-up years since Mike has been so reluctant to speak about them, and hopes to learn as much as she can from the woman who shared his younger years. The ensuing conversation threatens to expose some long-held secrets and shifts the tone of the play from a laugh-out-loud comedy to an emotional, soul-searching drama.
Lindsay-Abaire has crafted a script with snappy dialogue and unpredictable twists and turns that keep you involved from start to finish. In Margaret, he has created as unique a character as you are likely to find on the contemporary stage. Her temperament and her Southie roots are the backbone of this play. She is deferential yet aggressive, apologetic yet accusatory, cordial yet feisty. She is onstage nearly 100% of the time and any attempts at pigeonholing her personality will only lead to frustration as the play progresses.
The heavily burdened yet blithe-of-spirit Margaret is nicely played by Rabin Hammell. In addition, Director Angie Kane Ferrante has put together a fine supporting cast. As is sometimes the case with supporting casts, one among them comes off so naturally that it hardly looks like acting is part of the performance. Here it’s Margaret Gilkes who livens up the proceedings as the salty tongued Dottie and her kitschy, hand-made Styrofoam rabbits.
In addition to performing director’s duties and sound design, , Ferrante also does set design, which presents perhaps the best merger of design, staging area, and audience seating the Open Book has put together this season, their first in their new home in Trenton. The large-scale shadow box treatment not only serves as backdrop for scenes in Margie’s kitchen, Mike’s office and home, and a bingo parlor, but they make for a convenient place to store furniture that’s moved in and out as needed. Lighting is by Harley Miah with Danielle Gilbert serving as stage manager. Tom Whalen does the offstage voices (what would a game of Bingo be without someone to call out the numbers) and OB’s Artistic Director Krista Schafer Ewbank is the producer.
“Good People” runs through May 27th. Tickets can be purchased online via credit card or by mailing a check to Open Book Theatre Company at 1621 West Road, Trenton MI 48183. Further information is available by phone at 1.734.288.7753, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at their website at www.openbooktc.com.