Saturday, January 10, 2015

'Southie pride' comes up against the contrast between aspirations and reality in IRT's 'Good People'

Margie (Constance Macy) asks her boss, Stevie (Nick Abeel), for another chance.
National awareness of South Boston probably peaked in the mid-'70s, when court-ordered school integration met its most agonizing Northern test and exposed angry resentment that a community's cohesion was apparently being sacrificed for a doomed social experiment.

David Lindsay-Abaire's "Good People" doesn't restrict itself to the aspects of "Southie" resistance that can glibly be ascribed to white racism. The play, which opened Friday at Indiana Repertory Theatre, instead focuses on an American dilemma even more intractable: the traps of social class in a society that prides itself on classlessness.

The largely Irish-American neighborhoods of a city long in the grip of patrician Yankees have a history that tends to confine them to the working class and its rough-and-tumble power struggles. With less social mobility than  ever before, America is in danger of setting in stone the kind of stratification that makes Margie's challenges in "Good People" representative of at least a large plurality of the population.

The amazingly seamless design of the production, presented in association with Geva Theatre Center of Rochester, N.Y., allows Margie's story to develop with unforced eloquence, in settings ranging from a crowded apartment kitchen to a bingo parlor to a well-appointed suburban living room.

Mark Cuddy's direction of the cast shows a mastery of dramatic texture. When appropriate, one speech (delivered in flawless Boston accents) treads on another's heels. These are not people accustomed to tactfulness or deference to delicate sensibilities. At other times, you could cut the awkward or tense silences with a knife; much of the show's humor is generated by a character's afterthoughts revising something just said. Over it all is poured the thin sauce of Southie gossip, scheming, and identifying "good people" from the other kind.

Margie is by consensus one of the former. In comparison with her caustic pal Jean and with Dottie, her grasping, comically dense landlady, she is a secular saint. Having raised a disabled daughter alone and struggling to maintain a marginal lifestyle for them both, this smart but ill-schooled middle-aged woman is at the end of her rope as the play opens.

What a good person will do when desperate is painful to watch, but Constance Macy's performance Friday movingly combined grit and vulnerability. It also embodied a large portion of Lindsay-Abaire's gift for humor wrenched from trying circumstances. Fired in the first scene for repeated lateness by her compassionate but helpless supervisor Stevie (Nick Abeel), Margie assesses her options and, encouraged by Jean, decides to see what an old boyfriend who escaped Southie to become a successful physician can do for her.

Jean, Margie, and small-time entrepreneur Dottie are bingo regulars.

The constraints on life in South Boston make bingo a favorite pastime. Recurrent scenes in a bingo hall, with the diseembodied voice calling the squares, weave a thread of hopefulness through the play. Good luck is elusive, but in "Good People" hope is in endless supply, except for those whose losses — through addiction or crime — are final. Ironically, the good doctor has a lock on a corner of the hope market as a specialist in fertility treatment. More than a modicum of good luck, as Margie pointedly reminds him, has released him from Southie purgatory.

The expansive second-act scene in Dr. Mike's suburban home had touches of genius in both design and execution.  The doctor's gracious wife, Kate, exudes hospitality for Margie partly in an attempt to cover over an interrupted conversation with her husband about marital counseling. Nicole Lewis' performance moved from an abundance of hand and arm gestures to draw back physically as her curiosity is hurtfully satisfied by Margie. Sean Patrick Reilly's role as the doctor becomes a triathlon of emotional rigors as Mike's pretenses fall apart. And Margie maneuvers the conversation with an abundance of street smarts that vie with her woundedness. All told, all the emotional air is sucked out of the room at times, only to be exhaled in paroxysms of venting by all three characters.

The doctor is in: There's more going on in this tight-lipped moment than it appears.
That the heart of the play is here does not detract from the sometimes toxic exuberance of the Southie holdouts played by Peggy Cosgrave (Dottie) and Dee Pelletier (Jean). And Abeel projected the decency that remains as a lodestone of character among durable people with a minimum of real choices.

Long ago, my graduate-school participation in a Boston-area summer program included some Southie kids. We would talk about what they liked in contemporary life. In the long heyday of pop music's British Invasion, I remember the boys' favorite band tended not to be the Beatles, nor even the histrionically disreputable Rolling Stones. (The girls thought the Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits were cuter.)

The restless boys preferred Eric Burdon  and the Animals, the band that did "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place." The second line after the title goes "If it's the last thing we ever do."  There you have it: the love-death music of the generation that roiled Southie in the 1970s, a harbinger of the age we're now living in, when even white-skin privilege too seldom rewards beaten-down hope with good luck and means of escape. That "Good People" is more than staged sociology on this theme is a credit to the playwright's feeling for real people and the graceful energy of this production.