Even with the hundred or so miles separating us from Washington, D.C., I figure you can’t go wrong with at least a half-season subscription at Arena Stage. My wife and I’ve rarely been disappointed, and we weren’t going to be when we drove up to see their production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People at the end of last month
In the summer of 2011, when the play and I were in New York together, I had opted out of seeing it, choosing instead a disappointing evening of ten-minute plays. I should have known better, with the likes of Frances McDormand and Estelle Parsons in the cast. The play itself was later nominated for a “Best New Play” Tony, and McDormand would go on to win the Tony for “Best Actress in a Play,” as anyone familiar with her work might have guessed.
So I was greatly looking forward to this Arena production to make up for the error of my ways. It featured terrific performances by a fine ensemble, led by Johanna Day. I’m also a long-time Johanna fan, having seen her in Proof, in Albee’s Peter and Jerry, in Jane Anderson’s The Quality of Life, and in August Osage County, to name a few. She’s a talented actor, and a local good friend’s sister to boot.
In Good People, she plays Margie Walsh, who has just been laid off from her Dollar Store job. As the only support for her adult handicapped daughter, she is one step away from despair. So she seeks employment with an old neighborhood high school friend, who has moved up and out to become a well-heeled doctor. He claims he can’t help, but agrees to invite her to his birthday party, where she plans to meet other possible employers. The result is a wide-ranging exploration of contemporary touchstones: job loss, the handicapped, sexism, school violence, paternity, racism (the doctor’s wife is black), and class warfare.
Good People is an issue-oriented, thinking person’s play. The dialogue rings true, along with that wonderful Irish-American South Boston dialect. And the setting is as appealingly familiar as it has become in popular films. (Think The Fighter, with Mark Wahlberg, or Ben Affleck’s Good Will Hunting, The Town, and Gone Baby Gone.) It seems Lindsey-Abaire was also a “Southie.” All these elements add up to showing us real people, who surprise us by contradicting their stereotypes. They face serious moral dilemmas and complicated social issues.
That’s all very well and good. But there was something about the play itself that I can’t quite put my finger on that was disappointing. I guess I felt strung-along by convenient gimmickry, which never fully payed off on what it had led me to expect. The issues were argued cogently, enough to gratify all us liberals and allow us to celebrate our own moral correctness. But the circumstances occasionally felt contrived, as if they might have been lifted from Dr. Phil, or the Maury Povich show …. Okay, so maybe up a few notches from there. It’s certainly no where near as formulized as a Hollywood screenplay can be, when plot structure restrictions might so easily overwhelm a good story. There are plenty of satisfying surprises and false leads to be had here. But as in the “well-made” plays of old, they seem to show up on just the right page of the script, even if they’re lagging a little behind the audience.
Still, Good People does make for satisfying drama. And some of its very inventive twists kept my wife and me guessing and debating during the long drive home. Ultimately, we enjoyed the play, and we enjoyed being fooled by it. Best of all was the realization that these characters really are “good” people, acting out of both generosity and self-preservation. Sure, they can do great harm, as they work through the differences between being good and wanting to look good. But what comes through in the end is not their destructiveness, but their genuine desire to do right by each other. In this age of cynical realism, what a refreshing turn of affairs!