David Lindsay-Araire’s play, Good People, which recently opened at Arena Stage, asks the question, “How do good people appear to do bad things?” If this is a question that worries your mind, Good People will raise a lot of other questions. If you view plays about modern social conflict to be psycho-dramas, you probably will sneak out at the intermission. Yet, if you look back over your shoulder and notice the set change going on under full light, you might be drawn back into your seat.
The characters in Good People originate in a neighborhood in South Boston. We see the opening scene, between Stevie (Michael Glenn) and Margie (Johanna Day), in a back lot between row houses and chain link fencing. Both sides of the stage are filled with the multi-story outer walls and windows of two houses. I tried to figure out whether our balcony perspective distorted the angles of the shingle and clapboard walls. To me, both houses appeared leaned in, making the neighborhood grow larger over the people on the stage.
Margie is a middle-aged woman, who has held a series of labor and cashier jobs. Her face, hair, and hands show the weathering process of daily work. Stevie is her boss, who has the difficult task of firing her from one more job because of arriving to work habitually late. In this exchange, we learn that Margie has an adult daughter, Joyce, with retardation, whom she cares for. Often her tardiness or absence is because she is waiting for a neighbor to watch Joyce. While we never see Joyce on stage, this play revolves around the affect that she has on these good people.
The next scene takes place in the kitchen of the house where Maggie lives. The clapboard wall of the row house swings back, allowing the fully furnished kitchen to roll onto the stage. We meet Margie’s landlady, Dottie (Rosemary Knower), who lives upstairs and watches Joyce during the day, and friend, Jean (Amy McWilliams). Dottie does not charge Margie for babysitting, but accepts $50 per week to go toward the mortgage. Dottie has her own worries about her son, who has also lost work and has a prison record and reputation that limit business owner’s interest in hiring him. Jean informs Margie that a friend from the neighborhood, Mike (Andrew Long), has opened a clinic in Boston. Mike was their only peer to escape the neighborhood, go to college, and become a doctor. Jean prods Margie to go to his office to see if he has a job for her.
The kitchen disappears back into the wall of the row house, while the shingled wall swings open to produce Mike’s office. Mike works at his desk when Margie comes in, makes re-acquaintances, and finally asks about work. Mike is surprised, puzzled, and embarrassed about how far apart their lives have grown apart, and that he cannot help her with a job. In talking about people they know, he mentions his family and shows Margie a photo of his wife and daughter. He mentions his birthday party coming up. Margie negotiates an invitation to his birthday party, with the understanding that she would not be intruding on his life, but might interact with other guests who might know of work for her.
The first act ends at the neighborhood Bingo hall, with Margie, Dottie, Jean, and Stevie playing Bingo and strategizing how Margie can present herself at Mike’s party. All of these deliberations are punctuated with Bingo markers pounding the table. The Bingo hall is placed center stage, with the two row houses still leaning over the action and the chain link fence keeping it restrained.
Usually during intermission, in a theatre without a curtain, I would expect to see a stage hand or two come out, rearrange the set for the second act, tidy up debris and double check props. They would usually be nearly hidden in black T-shirts, slacks, socks and shoes: mere shadows of the theatre. During the intermission of Good People, Todd Rosenthall’s set crew appeared to come out like a construction crew and Mayflower movers, in jeans, slogan-T’s, jeans, and work boots. In the midst of the alley, they assembled the interior of Mike’s and Kate’s (Francesca Choy-Kee) upscale home in Chestnut Hill. The fireplace and bar service fill one side of the stage. The main staircase rises along the back wall, seen by us through the keystone arched entry. Overstuffed furniture, a coffee table, end tables and decorative vase stands and muted paintings decorate the room. All of this elegance is still over-shadowed by those row house shingle and clapboard walls.
Most of the second half of the play occurs in this living room. Near the end of the Bingo night, Margie receives a call from Mike, informing her that they have called the party off because their daughter is ill. Margie, Jean, and Dottie all conclude that this is a lie to prevent Margie from attending, and Margie determines that she will go anyway. When she arrives, after a long ride on the T, Mike’s wife, Kate, greets her, mistaking her for the someone from the catering company coming to pick up the supplies for the party that actually was called off. This is the first of an hour of misunderstandings and recoveries that Margie, Kate, and Mike make.
The playwright intertwines their stories: Margie the girl who has struggled for decades to keep a roof overhead; Mike the boy who moved out and up; and Kate the girl who grew up with status and now seeks stability. Initially, they work through the awkward moments of the unexpected visitor. Then they exchange comments about where their lives have taken them. Then they begin to explore their pasts, particularly Mike’s. Kate inquires about whether the stories that he has told about growing up in “Southie” are true. Margie reveals more than Kate or Mike want to know. As the tension rises, we are unsure of where details end and embellishments begin. The climax comes as Mike smashes the gift that Margie has brought and Margie threatens to shatter a gift that Mike gave to Kate.
The play ends back at the Bingo hall, which is now placed right in front of the sofa. Margie reviews how her evening with Mike and Kate went. Bingo markers bang on the table. They speculate about where the rent money came from and what jobs Margie might apply for. Margie ponders whether the neighbors knew who Joyce’s father was, and Jean tells her that everyone knows, even though Margie has tried to hide this for years.
Good People is more than a play about hard-scrabble lives. The conflicts, jokes, and yelling are about debunking the arguments about poverty, upward mobility, wealth, and social class. Our prejudices are stoked to jump to conclusions about Margie, Stevie, Mike and Kate. Our assumptions mislead and confuse us. The dialogue systematically recites our social explanations about success and failure: good vs bad luck, intelligence vs ignorance, seizing opportunity vs upholding responsibility, hard work vs laziness… No mater who starts the logic, the course of the dialogue disproves the premises. Underlying all of these arguments, which we hear daily on the news, in editorials, blogs, and conversations with our friends, is the concept of blame. Good People debunks the idea that we can blame our social problems on someone or something other than ourselves.
In contrast to blame, Good People suggests that survival and justice come not from winning the argument, but by seeing a need and acting. Each character has done this at some time, thus establishing that they are good people. Margie cares for her daughter. Dottie provides Margie a home at a loss of higher rent that she could get from someone else. Jean has remained a loyal friend. Mike has used his intellectual skills to provide for his family. Kate seeks to enhance their marriage. Stevie takes his good luck at winning bingo to pay another person’s debt.
Though often realistically harsh and troubling, Lindsay-Abaire keeps the dialogue in Good People crisp and witty. When Mike bashfully claims that he is not “wealthy, just comfortable”, Margie retorts, “That must make me uncomfortable”. When Margie quips with Kate, “You can take the girl out of Southie, but you can’t take Southie out of the girl.” Kate reciprocates, “Yeah, you can take the girl out of Georgtown, but can’t take Georgetown out of the girl”, referencing a local, wealthy neighborhood in Washington, D.C. After Mike smashes Margie’s gift, Margie threatens to hurl Kate’s glass vase, but stop’s, “Why bother… It’s insured”. Margie’s life lays about the room in dozens of pieces, but even if she attempted to destroy Mike’s life, he would just have someone pay to replace it.
Throughout the scenes is the layered set, always trapped between those two row houses. Whether relaxing with a cup of coffee in Dottie’s kitchen, or out for an evening of Bingo, or at Mike’s office or comfortable living room, the row houses lean in and over this play. No matter where these characters try to escape, they are forever between the walls of Southie. You can take these characters out of Southie, but you cannot take Southie out of these characters.
During the performance that we attended, we noticed that a woman in front of us, appearing to be alone as she did not interact with the people next to her, had a notebook out and occasionally would write something. As we stood to leave, the woman next to her inquired. She replied, “I’m the director (Jackie Maxwell)… just making some notes for the cast.” I wonder what she saw from that vantage point, one row in front of us.