Steppenwolf Theatre’s brilliant production of Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s dark comedy "Good People" is one of those beautiful moments in a theater lover’s experience when everything comes together. The script is rich and satisfying, the direction and set design are note perfect and the performances leave one’s jaw on the floor. This confluence of source material genius, creative literacy and consummate acting are the elements of a delicious and thought-provoking enterprise that any fan of the Chicago arts ought to squeeze into his or her fall calendar.
"Good People" is the inaugural offering from Steppenwolf’s 2012/13 season, themed "The Reckoning," which, according to the company’s press materials "explores the moment when we are called to account. Will our deeds be repaid? Will our secrets be revealed? Will we get what we deserve?" Against this stimulating backdrop, "Good People" is a natural first selection in which to consider such murky philosophical questions.
The play in set in the famed South Boston neighborhood that has served as the inspiration for a number of modern cinematic and theatrical classics. However, as my companion for the evening observed, the colorful community and the thick regional accents of the characters become almost incidental in this universal examination of the inherent cultural tensions between the haves and the have nots. And how do those tensions complicate childhood friendships, particularly when one moves up and is perceived to have forsaken friends and family left behind?
The script also explores the timely social debate between initiative versus entitlement and asks how a stable family unit and plain old luck impact the development of those ethics. It’s a thick moral brew viewed through the prism of Margie Walsh (sparkling Steppenwolf ensemble member Mariann Mayberry), a middle-aged woman worn from the struggle of caring for an adult-aged special needs child, and suddenly fired from her bottom rung job as a dollar store clerk.
Reaching out to former school chum and lover Mike Dillon (an exhilarating Keith Kupferer), a Southie boy who has made his bones as a fertility specialist catering to the one percent, Margie hopes to leverage her estranged friend’s contacts into an opportunity for herself.
One of the most interesting features of both the script as well as the go-for-broke performances by Mayberry and Kupferer is that, on the surface, neither of the two main characters is terribly likable. Viewed from a certain angle, Margie is an embittered, paranoid and passive aggressive foil to Mike’s arrogant, dishonest and empathy-free version of social mobility dogma. And yet, it is painfully easy to identify with either contestant in this high-stakes game of existential tug-of-war.
If a failure to pursue the one upwardly mobile lead she has is the only thing that stands between Margie and her family’s homelessness, can we blame her for her extremity? Likewise if shameful memories threaten a man’s social standing as well as his domestic harmony, is possible to fault him for his efforts to keep them concealed?
The trifecta of Lindsay-Abaire’s poignant script, deft direction from company ensemble member K. Todd Freeman and nimble performances from the entire cast meld to produce a reflection of the dynamics that play out in Great Recession-cratered communities everywhere.
Any discussion of "Good People’s" cast must pay equal tribute to the production’s supporting players, with special notice owed to three talented actresses. Molly Regan breathes life into Dottie, a shrewish landlady concerned for her deadbeat son, with a vested interest in Margie’s success.
Lusia Strus turns in scene-stealing performance as Jean, the bawdy but loyal friend with a heart of gold. And Alana Arenas, recently seen in Steppenwolf’s rendering of Anton Chekhov’s "Three Sisters," gives a nuanced portrayal of a well-bred upper-middle class wife whose well-intentioned dive into her husband’s past yields illusion-shattering results.
It’s very difficult to point to a weakness in this expertly constructed production. Economical yet vivid work from Scenic Designer Walt Spangler yields persuasive renderings of a retail store back alley, a blue-collar apartment kitchen and a trendy doctor’s office with equal dexterity.
Costume design application from Nan Cibula-Jenkins evokes the right balance of taste and financial resources germane to each character. Dialect coach Eva Breneman prevents the actors from veering into absurd linguistic caricature.
Honestly, this offering from Steppenwolf ’s 2012/2013 slate’s only drawback is that it wasn’t longer than its two hour and 15 minute running time (with one intermission). The standing ovation earned from the audience near the play’s conclusion was a testament to the production’s ability to leave a crowd wanting more.
Coarse language and adult situations render "Good People" a PG-13 affair, but otherwise, this is an artistic piece that will produce discomfort, laughs and cross-cultural recognition for anyone who enjoys superior theater.
"Good People" runs through November 11 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.