GOOD PEOPLE, Ensemble Theatre, 13 April-21 May 2016. Photography by Clare Hawley: above - Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan; right - Christopher Stollery and Zindzi Okenyo
David Lindsay Abaire’s 2011 Tony Award nominee is an interesting play to come out of the USA in these times. It’s listed as a comedy and is in parts wickedly and wittily funny. Yet there’s a whole lot more going on than mere laffs.
Set in two contrasting areas of Boston – rough, tough “Southie" and the graciously affluent Chestnut Hill – Good People is very much a play about the US now. It’s a land of millions of have-nots and a few have-alls; of false opportunity and false hope and every social and political extreme in between.
Margaret (Tara Morice) is a weary single mother of a disabled teenage daughter. She has a deadening job on the check-out of a Dollar Store which is both the best and worst she can get. She gave up hope of a better life long ago but isn’t beaten, yet.
She has two buddies, Dottie (Gael Ballantyne) who’s also her landlady and a cross between a shark and a hippie, and Jean (Jane Phegan), a school friend and now a comrade on the front line of poverty. The three share a sardonic view of life and a love of Bingo – which occasionally dishes up a few extra bucks for the lucky one.
When closet bingo player and store manager Stevie (Drew Livingstone) is forced to fire Margaret for being late one time too many – the district manager is watching, it’s Margaret or Stevie for the high jump, what would you do? – she is finally in the deep end. This is post-Wall Street collapse, post-GFC: there are no jobs and no prospects, especially for Margaret. She’s been clinging to the bottom rung of the working class ladder and now the under class beckons.
In essence that’s the first half and although wordy, it paints a rich picture of these people and their lives. The setting (design Tobhiyah Stone Feller and Ross Graham lighting) is the back alley behind the Dollar Store with a graffiti-covered roller door neatly signifying much about the post-affluent world of slum retail and, with a change of lights and addition of a kitchen table and chairs, Margaret’s kitchen or the church hall bingo venue.
The catalyst for change arrives in the form of Jean running into a high school flame of Margaret’s – Mike, a (gasp, wow) doctor – and urging her to check out his surgery because surely he must need a receptionist or a janitor, or something, anything…
The second half fluently turns the alleyway into the lounge room of a Chestnut Hill mansion. Here lives a couple for whom the American Dream is grasped firmly in both hands: reproductive specialist Dr Mike (Christopher Stollery) and his gorgeous young wife and academic Kate (Zindzi Okenyo) live in style with their small perfect daughter in a very good life.
Mike is the Southie boy who escaped – to college, medical school, specialisation and material success. Now he lives 14 kilometres and a world away: 20 minutes by car, but for Margaret, it’s an hour and a half schlep on public transport. And she turns up because there’s supposed to be a party to which she guilt-tripped Mike into issuing an invitation.
The twists and turns that occur between Margaret, Kate and Mike are skilfully woven and executed by the playwright and director Mark Kilmurry. The gasps and groans and titters rising from the audience are divided along gender lines as the rising temperature reveal true colours and mean streaks. Somewhere along the way the American Dream has become a nightmare.
Tara Morice is magnificent as the battling, not quite bitter Margaret. She is rarely off-stage and carries the action and the emotional weight as if it were nothing. It’s a brilliantly nuanced performance and worth the ticket price (reasonable anyway) just to see her.
Good People isn’t a solo effort however. Morice is ably supported by a cannily chosen company of the very best. In particular it’s terrific to see Zindzi Okenyo finally getting to step outside her usual casting cliche of kooky black chick. Here she gets her teeth into a subtle and very American character (middle class woman of colour in the Michelle Obama mode) and she makes her an anchor point for the second half.
As Dr Mike, Christopher Stollery is a welcome presence back on stage (lately he’s been at school learning film direction) and his is another subtle performance: switching when finally challenged from urbane Mr Nice Guy back to the mouthy little snot from the wrong side of the tracks.
Gael Ballantyne delighted Ensemble audiences last year in Ladies in Lavender as “hilariously dowdy and formidable cook-housekeeper Dorcas” (review – stagenoise.com). In Good People she’s also hilariously dowdy and formidable, but also the tough and unsentimental product of a hard life, where a woman is only as safe as her most formidable weapons: a loud voice and a sharp tongue and the sass to stand up and use them.
Similarly Jane Phegan and Drew Livingstone make three-dimensional people out of their supporting characters and round out the story and its ups and downs. There is nothing soppy or cute in Good People. Abaire is not remotely misty-eyed about what’s going down in the US of A these days and in these two hours including an interval it’s possible to see where the desperate and unlikely hope generated by Donald Trump has come from.
Not your simple wacky comedy but a thoughtful and intelligent piece for grownups that keeps on giving. You’ll laugh but wince too! Recommended.