Thursday, February 20, 2014

Last Weekend! Ensemble Theatre Company Gives "Good People" a Good Turn by M.R. Hunter

David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” at the New Vic in Santa Barbara imbues this multi-layered drama about class, conscience and integrity with robust performances and verve. The Tony-nominated play received its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012 with Jane Kaczmarek as Margaret, a “Southie” Bostonian struggling mother from the wrong side of town, but this production with Alicia Sedwick in the role is as good if not better in its frankness.

Being frank is part of Margie’s charm but also her downfall when she finds herself unemployed, uneducated and without options due to a checkered past and a sharp tongue. Her hard-edged persona though is a front to hide the rising panic and vulnerability that slyly reveals itself. Caught by circumstance and misguided choices from her teenage years, Margie’s desperation spurns her to go begging for a job from a former high school flame who made good as a doctor, now living in the posh side of town, Chestnut Hill, a far cry from the projects they grew up in.

The touchy and sometimes taboo subject of class and opportunity is openly broached when Margie and Mike (Geoffrey Lower) reminisce in his fertility clinic about the good ole days, only to come out in full force when Mike doesn’t have a job opening for her. Swirling in passive aggression, snark and biting observations Margie accuses Mike of being “lace-curtain,” a derogatory term for those who escaped the Southside hood. Her shame turns into pride when her goal of securing a low paying job incites a match of wits between the have and have not. Ladling guilt and manipulation, Margie bulldozes her way into a dinner party at his house.

It’s easy to dislike Margie, even while she evokes sympathy from her unenviable situation. Straddled with a developmentally disabled daughter and friends who are conveniently loyal, Lindsay-Abaire doesn’t make her warm or loveable. With the right actress in the role, however, Margie still is likeable for all her rough edges. She is an interesting contradiction in unity: naïve but streetwise, forgiving but vengeful, and looks for the good by giving the benefit of the doubt to those who least deserves it. This fascinating contrast of polarities causes this explosive, well-plotted social commentary to come to a cataclysmic, surprising eruption in Act II.

Convinced Mike is lying to her when he abruptly cancels his soiree, Margie, egged on by Jean (Deedee Rescher) a no-nonsense broad with a raspy smoker’s voice and wicked humor, arrives at Mike’s palatial home only to discover he was telling the truth. His young, African-American wife, Kate (Tracey A. Leigh) a Literature professor insists Margie stay for a drink and cheese. Surrounded by the very things she’ll never have for herself and the reality that Mike is ashamed by her, his past and his childhood roots, Margie needles, wheedles and cranks out ugly truths.

What makes this play particularly brilliant is Lindsay-Abaire’s ability to give flawed protagonists valor even if what they do isn’t always admirable or right. The lines of morality and justice are not so thickly drawn by his hand but are fine fissures cracking through the surface most would prefer not to see, let alone acknowledge. Margie, in an act of self-preservation does the unthinkable, extorting the few crumbs her life has not afforded her, only to swallow her own bitter regret.

Surrounding the issues of class, prejudice and the expiring American belief that anyone can rise up and get ahead, Lindsay-Abaire adds philosophical posits on free will, fortune and self-determination. Much like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” “Good People” is a contemporary depiction of the lower, working class, family and the pressures of succeeding when the deck is unfairly stacked. Lacking the tragic element, Margie unlike Willy Loman is a survivor. She is the epitome of good people stuck with a bad lot, due to her decisions, but also the lack of luxury to make better choices. It all crashes down, in a throwaway observation of insight, too lightly nuanced in the last scene in this staging, when the harsh truth is revealed.

Beautifully mounted in the renovated New Vic, Ensemble Theatre Company rivals the Geffen’s dramatic set with expert design by Steven Gifford who adds grittier aesthetics and warmth.

The ensemble is first-rate with Catherine E. Coulson as the annoying, selfish landlady Dottie, Matthew Grondin as the soft-spoken, unsung hero, Stevie. Tracey A. Leigh, plays a similar role from “The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King,” but as Kate she has more here to delve into and is impeccable in her timing and balanced portrayal. Geoffrey Lower is perfectly suited to the role of Mike and lends the role a rewarding mix of pity and seething anger. Deedee Rescher is a show-stopper as the comic relief but finds moments to inject genuine somberness. The role of Margie strikes to the heart by Alicia Sedwick’s feeling performance. She takes a huge risk in allowing the audience to occasionally see her character’s wheels turn in scenes with Mike and his wife, to good effect and an additional payoff. There is nothing missed in this exquisitely complex and timely masterpiece.

“Good People” reveals the human condition with all its faults in a time where being a good person isn't always enough and noble sacrifice is rarely rewarded.

“Good People”
Runs through Feb. 23
Fri & Sat @ 8pm
Sundays @ 2pm & 7pm
New Vic
33 West Victoria Street

Santa Barbara CA 93101
PH: 805-965-5400        

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