A well written play with complex characters in the hands of great actors – it’s a real pleasure. Even better if the play can speak to us about something relevant and interesting, with a sense of humour and emotional authenticity, and surprise us rather than confirming a set of hackneyed character types and narrative tricks.
Mark Kilmurry’s production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 play is just that.
In Good People, Lindsay-Abaire (who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play-turned-film Rabbit Hole) returns home to South Boston, to explore class and character in a story that revolves around Margie Walsh: a barely-working middle aged dollar-shop cashier with a severely mentally handicapped adult daughter.
Out of work and worrying how she’ll cover the rent, Margie hears from her best friend Jean that an old flame is in town: Mikey Dillon – now Dr. Mike Dillon, dealing in fertility and difficult pregnancies. Jean goads Margie into hitting him up for a job, and we cut to Margie ‘surprising’ Dr Dillon at his clinic. There’s a weird tension in the room, which is only partly explained by class friction, as Margie ribs Mike about his ‘lace curtain’ ways. You can take the boy out of Southie – but since when was it so easy to take the Southie out of the boy?
The territory of South Boston has been thoroughly mined by film and TV for tales of crimes and class – many of them hinging on the protagonist’s attempts to transcend their background to make a better life. (See: Good Will Hunting; Boondock Saints; The Town; Dennis Lehane adaptations Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River; What Doesn't Kill You; the US remake of Infernal Affairs, The Departed.)
Lindsay-Abaire’s play is very aware of the clichés around Southie stories, and goes refreshingly against the grain. I won’t say all characters are afforded equal complexity, but there’s a definite pushing back against expectations of how each character will behave, and a lack of predictability that is entirely human. No angels, no demons; no neat character sketches. No exploitative deployment of tragedy or victimisation.
The star of the piece is really Margie: a tough-minded survivor who is prickly out of her comfort zone, spikey when she’s in a corner, but pragmatically open-armed and accepting when it comes to her friends, neighbours and co-workers. The person who fires you today will be sitting next to you at Bingo tomorrow – what’s the point in holding a grudge? Margie is heroic in her capacity to hold ground and keep her head high, and even her manipulative streaks of action are strangely endearing – acts of necessity, rather than malice.
Margie was played in the premiere Broadway season by Frances McDormand – which gives you an even better sense of the character, perhaps. And in Australia, it’s hard to imagine anyone much better than Tara Morice (last on stage in Belvoir’s 2014 production of Once in Royal David’s City). She has that guarded quality coupled with a sly charm – an ability to disarm you with a half smile. She balances Margie’s spiky exterior with moments of unguarded pleasure, and an almost girlish deportment that reminds us of the teenager whose horizon was abruptly circumscribed by a confluence of bad luck and social circumstance.
Her dance partner in the drama is Mike (played with an easy physicality by Christopher Stollery), whose self-made-man mythology is deconstructed and nice-guy patina is buffed away, over the course of the play.
In a satisfying climactic confrontation between Margie and Mike, she calls bullshit on the idea that either of their lives are the product of personal behaviour and choices. It’s a message that should hit home in a pre-election atmosphere (here and in America) in which the 1%, middle class and embattled working class are being pitted against each other.