CHICAGO—Once in a while, a play comes along that looks at the economic fabric making up our American Dream and finds it threadbare. For playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, the fabric is so worn that a neighborhood falls right through it.
Margie (Jacqueline Grandt) barely survives in South Boston, an old, Catholic neighborhood. It has a well-earned reputation as being tough, insular, clannish, and poor—it’s got some of the oldest public housing projects in the country.
Fired from her $9-and-some-odd-cents job at a dollar store, Margie is desperate. She’s not as young as she was the last time her being late to work got her in trouble. She’s perennially late because as a single parent of a grown, mentally disabled daughter, Margie relies on someone who chronically oversleeps but otherwise offers trustworthy and affordable day care. Now she’s only one step from living on the curbside, where an old friend has just died.
She can think of only one person who might help her to a new job—her one-time high school boyfriend, Mike (Mark Pracht), who’s now a wealthy fertility doctor. They meet, but it’s clear that Margie resents Mike’s success, and he resents that she resents him. Yet he’s having a party, and she might just meet a potential employer, so of course she must go.
Now we see how the other half lives, the half that has achieved the American Dream. Mike is married to a beautiful, young, intelligent, and sophisticated black woman, Kate (Kiki Layne). Yet the two of them are undergoing marital counseling.
When Margie reveals some of Mike’s past, fireworks erupt.
Mike escaped his past through his own effort and smart choices, or so he believes. But Margie believes that whether Mike knows it or acknowledges it, he had help along the way. Good people were watching out for him, and getting help means that he is lucky.
Lindsay-Abaire examines what used to be called the haves and the have-nots. Here they have morphed into those who are comfortable and those who are uncomfortable because, ironically, those who are comfortable are uncomfortable being called wealthy.
From Margie’s point of view, it is not that she didn’t work hard or that she made bad choices. As she makes clear in her most lucid monologue, the hand-to-mouth poor don’t have as many options as those living more comfortably. Every time she’s come up for air, fate—here called bad luck—would push her back down. In fact, living without choices may be one of the poor’s defining characteristics.
Not everyone can live the American Dream, contrary to the popular myth.
But there is more to the story than resentment being passed back and forth. Underneath is the idea that it is important to be a good person. Life may have afforded Margie few choices, but those she’s had have defined her. They have limited her life, true, but they have also made her a good person.
This is what makes “Good People” hit the heart. Lindsay-Abaire allows Margie to make choices based on what is right rather than on her pocketbook. He makes his point by comparing her with Kate who, from her comfortable perch, grudgingly claims she’s has had to forego her pride. Ultimately, we see who is actually self-sacrificing.
It is due to Margie’s few choices made for the sake of others that she has been able to retain her self-respect. The poor aren’t usually granted this privilege.
“Good People” works extremely well in Redtwist’s tiny storefront theater with its scant 35 seats. Director Matt Hawkins pulls the show together with minimal props—almost nothing that is not essential—just as the “Southies” must pull themselves together with scant assets.
Through terrific ensemble work, we are much more at home in the hard-scrabbled world of Margie and her friends than in the cultured, rich, and tension-filled world of the haves. We enjoy Jean (KC Karen Hill), who may be loud-mouthed, but she’s fiercely devoted to Margie. We enjoy Dottie (Kathleen Ruhl), Margie’s peevish landlady, who despite her interest in Margie’s rent money, is certainly not mean-spirited. We come to admire Stevie (Aaron Kirby), the young boss forced to fire Margie.
But, of course, we feel most deeply for Margie. Grandt rings true as someone who will try desperately to stay afloat, but ultimately who will do what she thinks is right.
1044 W. Bryn Mawr, Chicago
Tickets: 773-728-7529, or redtwist.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Closes Aug. 23