Review of Good People at TheaterWorks, Hartford
David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, superbly directed by Rob Ruggiero at TheaterWorks, opens with Margie (Erika Rolfsrud), a Dollar Store employee, losing her job. She has been late one too many times over the past eight years. As she tries, first humorously and then with rising rage and desperation, to negotiate with her boss, the young Stevie (Buddy Haardt), we come to understand quite a bit about Margie and about Lindsay-Abaire’s aims in writing this play.
Set before gentrification comes to the Irish-American working class neighborhood of South Boston (“Southie”), the playwright’s hometown, Good People explores the complicated role that luck plays in a person’s ability to escape impoverished circumstances. America’s increasingly shaky belief in a classless society is based on the notion that hard work and determination are all one needs for success. Margie is here to tell us otherwise.
In the following scene, set in Margie’s kitchen, we meet her brassy friend Jean (Megan Byrne) and her landlady, aptly named Dottie (Audrie Neenan). The talk centers on jobs: who has one, who hasn’t got a chance of finding one, how Margie can get herself another one, fast. Here we learn why Margie has lost numerous minimum-wage positions: her adult daughter, severely disabled due to a premature birth, requires constant supervision. When Jean remembers that at a catering gig she met one of their high school friends, Mikey Dillon (R. Ward Duffy), who got out of Southie and became a doctor, she’s certain that he’s Margie’s ticket to solvency: after all, Margie and Mike were an item for awhile in high school, and surely he’ll help someone from the neighborhood.
What unfolds between Margie and Mike—when she visits his office to test the limits of his loyalty to old friends; when Jean and Dottie react to this meeting during one of two funny and telling scenes set in a bingo hall; and during a searing scene in Act Two—dramatizes the play’s themes and provides an evening of thought-provoking, high-tension, nearly brilliant theater. I say “nearly” only because some of Lindsay-Abaire’s scenes go on a bit too long. While one could listen all night to these uniformly terrific actors speak his sharp, gritty, and at times hilarious dialogue, the plot, to its credit, creates a momentum that can’t afford to sag.
Lindsay-Abaire couldn’t hope for a better rendering of Good People than Rob Ruggiero’s terrific production. As Margie, Erika Rolfsrud gives a stunningly strong and nuanced performance. Margie is tough, but she must also convey anxiety without coming across as a victim (an epithet she would despise). She is brilliant and at the same time unapologetically uneducated. She has a mean streak and knows how to use it: watch her deploy the phrase “lace-curtain Irish” when talking about Mike’s rise in the world, and see her satisfaction when her words hit their target. Yet if the actress doesn’t also display warmth and humor, she loses the audience and the production falls apart. Rolfsrud nails every note.
The rest of the cast is no less remarkable. As Mike, R. Ward Duffy is coiled as tightly as a camouflaged snake. Mike knows how Margie can needle, shame, and possibly destroy him. He’s plenty arrogant, but he is also persuasive in his belief that hard work leads to success and, conversely, that the lack of success proves inadequacy. Mike is Margie’s natural enemy, yet Duffy and Rolfsrud’s arguments have a sexual spark that makes us believe in their intense youthful affair, and in Mike’s uneasy kinship with his background.
As Dottie, Audrie Neenan provides more than comic relief: her character’s comments on the surrounding events bring to mind one of Shakespeare’s fools. Her foolishness is real enough, and a riot, but her wacky utterances unwittingly convey the resignation of a life defined by Southie. Megan Byrne, as Jean, carries some of Lindsay-Abaire’s sharpest and most humorous dialogue, and her timing is perfection: she can deliver a zinger with one raise of an eyebrow or dart of an eye.
Buddy Haardt, as Stevie, who quietly endures Jean’s scornful certainty that he is gay because he plays bingo, gives us an understated, gentle performance that adds moments of rest amidst the women’s sharp repartee. And Chandra Thomas, as Mike’s wife—the least well-written role in the script—finds moments of subtle humor and genuine pain without overplaying.
Of special note in this production is the use of film-like, photographed projections (by Scenic Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella) to create distinctively different neighborhoods, and to simulate, also, the movement between them: our movement along with Margie’s. We watch the Dollar Store and run-down strip malls roll by, and later the appearance of trees and large houses tell us we are in another world.
Beautifully rendered, too, is the sound design by Mike Miceli, especially in the bingo scenes. Of course, much of the credit goes to Lindsay-Abaire for writing these scenes as he has, but Ruggiero and Miceli—along with these terrific actors—have brought out the script’s sharp music. As the characters talk about Margie’s mounting difficulties, the marking of cards echoes the characters’ larger hopes, and the bingo caller’s voice drives the tension.
Ruggiero’s Good People is one of the most gripping, layered, and provocative productions seen at TheaterWorks in the past eight years, which is a high compliment indeed. The performances invigorate and inspire, and the play’s complex ideas resonate long after the evening ends.
By David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Scenic Design: Luke Hegel-Cantarella; Costume Design: Harry Nadal; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Mike Miceli; Casting: McCorkle Casting LTD.; Production Manager: C. Nikki Mills; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Consultant: Gillian Lane-Plescia
May 22-June 28, 2015