BWW Review: Miraculous Rebecca Dines in David Lindsay-Abaire's Powerful GOOD PEOPLE at American Stage
Stephanie Gularte may have been the Producing Artistic Director of American Stage since 2015, but this season really marks her official Year One. Last season was a mishmash of shows with some of them quite strong (4000 Miles, The Pitmen Painters, Jitney), some watchable but unexceptional (Intimate Apparel, The 39 Steps, A Tale of Two Cities), and Spamalot In the Park thrown in for good measure. Although Gularte was at the helm last season, the shows were picked prior to her arriving in our area. So make no mistake--this year is her year. All of the shows this season are of her choosing, and they reflect her sensibilities and strengths, her talents as well as her weltanschauung (sorry, but as The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee teaches us, when you get a chance to use a word like weltanschauung, take it).
It was a keen move of Gularte to start the year off with a home run like GOOD PEOPLE. Cast correctly, it's hard to go wrong with this, a safe early victory for the season. And the director has a ringer of a cast with this wonderful ensemble, especially with Rebecca Dines giving a performance that will surely be talked about when local awards are handed out.
David Lindsay-Abaire's script instantly connects with audiences. It opens in the alley behind a Dollar Store where Margie (pronounced with a hard "g" in the middle), a struggling, opinionated Boston "Southie," is fired for consistent tardiness. She has to pay rent to her landlady, Dottie, while her outspoken pal, Jean, mentions running into a man from their past: Mike, a former high school beau of Margie's. This leads to Margie eventually coming face to face with him--a former Southie but now a fertility specialist who is currently "lace-curtain Irish," a phrase of Margie's which is not intended as a compliment. Obviously uncomfortable by Margie's presence, Mike is forced to invite her to his upcoming birthday gala at his posh Chesnut Hill home. When Mike later calls her to cancel the party invitation due to a sick child, Margie thinks he's lying and decides to go to the party anyway. What happens next is one of the finest (extended) scenes that you will have the pleasure (and joyful discomfort) watching: Margie defiantly arriving in Chestnut Hill. I don't want to give too much away, but just know that the show involves twists and turns and some of the best dialogue from a playwright who knows these people and knows them well.
Simply put, GOOD PEOPLE lives or dies with Margie. (The part won Frances McDormand the Tony Award for Best Actress in 2011.) This is a character so memorable that we root for her and loathe her at the same time. Rarely do I find myself finding someone so socially repugnant, yet so alive, entertaining, and quirky that I want her to succeed, especially when faced against stuffed shirts who deserve some kind of comeuppance but may not find it (at least outside of marital turmoil). Rebecca Dines as Margie gives one of the best performances I've seen since reviewing for BWW (over two years). You understand her in the same ways that you connect with a good friend who may drive you crazy or a family member that you just want to see on Thanksgiving. She is not necessarily a nice soul, or "good people" (she's too knee jerk for that), but she has inklings of kindness and there is an adorable shyness that sometimes seeps through in Dines' performance. She's real--a person, not a caricature--with a real, understandable chip (or two, or three) on her shoulders.
Margie specializes in "breakin' balls," or needling someone in the most passive (or not-so-passive) aggressive way possible. When Mike's wife mentions that she works at BU, Margie immediately says, "Harvard wasn't hiring?" This is a throwaway moment, but it speaks volumes. Margie has nothing, less than nothing, but she won't let the winners of life enjoy their little victories. If she can't win, then why should anyone else?
Dines' Margie is reason enough to see GOOD PEOPLE, but there is so much more to offer. My second favorite character is Mike's wife, Kate, played here by Renata Eastlick. Her cheese tray description is one of the highlights of the show to me (and I will now on forever know my cheeses: Humboldt Fog, Epoisses, and Wensleydale). I thought Eastlick was outstanding as Daniela in American Stage's In the Heights last year, where her "No Me Diga" was a standout, and as dynamic as she was in that, she's even better here (the parts are so dissimilar that I would never know it was the same actress). Eastlick is always in the moment, and she comes across as incredibly real and strong here. It's a role that perfectly offsets Dines' more overtly obnoxious Margie, but both women share their own, very different kind of pain and desperation. You get a sense that Kate keeps Margie around for two reasons: Yes, to put into focus her husband's hazy past, but more importantly, to jazz up her sad ideal of a life in Chesnut Hill. Without Margie there, it's just her, her husband, her (unseen) sick daughter, and lots of Wensleydale cheese. You don't want to like her (she's one of life's lucky souls), but you do. Deeper yet, you also feel incredibly sorry for her (ironically, in a way, sorrier for her than you do for the down-and-out Margie).
The powerful Peter Reardon inhabits the thankless role of Mike. I say thankless because the audience can never warm to him, nor should they. We may understand his discomfort with Margie, and empathize, but he has turned his back on the past so much that he has become a made-up persona, a mere façade instead of a real man. And he becomes the antagonist of the story--a man who escaped from the wrong side of the tracks, but a man who overplays his lower-class roots when needed for a good braggadocio tale but at the same time abandons them 100%. Reardon captures this beautifully. And no one grits his teeth into a fake-smile as well as he does. But not once do we hope this "winner" continues his winning streak (great job, great house, great wife, great kid); we want to see him brought back down to earth with his Chestnut Hill kingdom left in tatters (and, in a way, it is...emotional tatters). After Mike breaks a pathetic child's toy rabbit (a gift for his daughter), all bets are off. The audience wants his blood.
As Margie's Bingo brigade, Bonnie Agan, Vickie Daignault, and Britt Michael Gordon excel. The talented Ms. Agan (as Dottie) gets the funniest lines of the show, usually featuring an expletive, and Daignault, as the brash Jean, is both likable and forceful. Gordon, who you may recall from The Pitmen Painters and who plays Margie's former Dollar Store manager here, smartly uses his quietness to contrast with Margie's ballsiness. This is one kick-ass ensemble (to which Margie would add, "Pardon my French," if she had said that).
GOOD PEOPLE is the Stephanie Gularte show that we've been waiting for. Her direction is close to flawless, with masterful staging and actors at the top of their game. Her sound design is also tops, complete with a priest's recitation of Bingo numbers and appropriate musical snippets during scene changes ("Sixteen Tons," "Midnight Blues," "Baby, I'm Broke").
Frank Chavez's scene design is ingenious, like a particularly prickly puzzle or a Rube Goldberg contraption. It's elaborate, from the opening graffiti-strewn alleyway, to Margie's "Southie" kitchen, to the sterilized chic home of Mike and Kate. Dan Covey's lighting is just right and never calls attention to itself. And Becki Leigh's costumes serve the show well (you can tell the difference between the Southies and those in Chesnut Hill simply by their attire).
Jerid Fox's props are for the most part sensational. I love that Margie's kitchen includes a Mr. Potato Head cookie jar and a Snoopy Sno-Cone machine (for Margie's off-stage mentally-challenged adult daughter). And the props play particular importance in Mike and Kate's living room, where the vases and paintings give us a feeling of their "comfortable" Chesnut Hill life. My only qualm comes with a single anachronism that I noticed: Since the show is set in 2011 (as written in the program), I wish the prop masters would have utilized a Wall Street Journal from that year and not a current one showing Obama and Putin on the front page staring face to face at the recent G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China.
Lindsay-Abaire's spot-on script is the perfect playground for the fine actors to emotionally frolic in. My only nitpick with it comes at the very end. The coda, set in a Bingo hall, just seemed too coloring-within-the-lines for me, too pat and tidy. I like things more open-ended, a bit messier (like life). I understand why this scene is there--structurally it works bringing in the Bingo and the characters from Act 1--but it just seemed too obvious for my tastes. Besides, it's hard to appropriately follow up the stunning scene that we had just witnessed; where do you go from there? It's like that concert in the 1960's where the Monkees actually had to follow Jimi Hendrix.
GOOD PEOPLE is the reason we go to the theatre: To be more than just entertained (although the show certainly does that). But to feel, to laugh, to think, to debate, to empathize, to yearn, to see ourselves on the stage and, most important of all, to hope. If this production is an indication of the American Stage season to come, then we are in for one wild and exhilarating ride.
GOOD PEOPLE plays until October 2nd at American Stage. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).