Wednesday 6 April 2016

Good People is a gritty, witty tale of fate & choice
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Class divides. Tribes. Ghettoes. Stereotypes. The stuff of Good People by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire who grew up in South Boston. Which is a large rectangle that during the Irish potato famine's mass influx of emigres to the New World became just that for them, their world, their cloister. Partly by chance, partly by choice once they were shunned as peasant mucksters by Boston's hoi polloi. And largely stayed their peoples' world for a century or more.

Good People, the title, is no throwaway. Nor is it necessarily ironic in asking the question what roles do luck, chance, opportunity and personal effort have to play in whether one succeeds or fails in life.  Set at the time of the Great Recession eight years back, jobs have literally gone south. The economy is in tatters. Losing one's dead-end job as a dollar store clerk might be less paycheque interruptus than an outright job death sentence. 

These realities and questions are the tale Margie Walsh [Colleen Wheeler] works her way through. Hoping to score job contacts through him, she re-links with her high school flame Mikey Dillon [Scott Bellis] from three decades back. He's a SoB escapee all right, a reproduction endocrinology specialist with a trophy wife 15 years his junior. They live in leafy Chestnut Hill up across the South Boston Bypass and I-93 freeway that divide the haves from the have-nots.

With the sizzle and snap of irony and sarcasm, Margie spars with Mike. She challenges him how he came to his considerably more privileged circumstances -- being "comfortable" to use the diminutive descriptor the wealthy often do -- while she stayed on, a Southie stuck in time now one rent payment away from living on the streets with her mentally disabled 30-year-old daughter. Who are "good people" and what makes them so? And is that a single reference point or possibly a continuum? In the original NYC production in 2011, Frances McDormand (of Fargo fame) won a Tony statuette for best actress. Ms. Wheeler gives the role a delightful and inspired and genuinely engaging turn in ACT's Stanley show, too. 

How the plot's all put together : The stage action occurs on four different mini-sets, three of them plopped on stage wagons to intersect both physically and thematically. The story focuses on how Margie deals with life after getting fired from the Family Dollar store. She's worked there for three years but because of chronic lateness -- mostly due to her daughter Joyce's often-tardy caregiver -- the whippersnapper store manager Stevie Grimes (Ben Elliott) is ordered by regional admin to fire her even though she was a childhood chum of his late Mom.

The caregiver happens to be the Walsh's landlady Dottie Gillis (Patti Allan), a Bingo-playing buddy. Buddy though she may be, Dottie threatens to evict Margie and Joyc-ee if Margie's late at all with the month's rent. Third Bingo-maniac is Margie's bosom buddy Jeanne (Jenn Griffin). At one such game night at the parish church hall Jeanne convinces Margie to hunt up ex-squeeze Mikey and try to hit him up for a job. "He was always good people, Mikey," Margie tells herself. 

Back rolls the bingo hall, in rolls the Dr's office. Instantly we learn there's a lot of attitude in the air. Margie says his receptionist was "pretty cunty to me", while he laughs it off and says Margie's just another "mouthy from Southie". Margie learns that Mikey's wife Kate (Sereana Malani) is planning a catered birthday party for what is apparently his 50th birthday. She insinuates an invite to try to hit up his wealthy guests for a job. But only through a sarcastic challenge to "let the Southie rats in", accusing Mikey of having become "lace curtain Irish", Southie lingo for nouveau riche snob. He bristles and accuses Margie of being a time-honoured Southie "meanie" by baiting him with passive-aggressive repartee. "I'm just bustin' balls, Mikey, you're good people," she responds in vintage passive-aggressive Whitey Bulger mob-speak.

Jeanne puts Margie up to telling Mikey that daughter Joyce was not a preemie by husband Gobie who deserted them many years back and may be in prison or dead. She's to tell Mikey she was pregnant before he went off the UPenn and try to get some guilt-money out of him because "nobody goes to a party and hires an unemployed cashier".

Act II finds Margie meeting Kate in the sumptuous Chestnut Hill living room, she who is a black doctor's daughter and professor at University of Boston : "You there because Harvard wasn't interested...?" Margie teases.  The show turns its attention, as noted above, to "what roles do luck, chance, opportunity and personal effort have to play in whether one succeeds or fails in life". Ugly racist history from Southie is brought up as well as the fact of Margie and Mikey being an item at the time she became pregnant with Joyce. Lots of tension and anger and gnashing of egos. Ultimately Margie sullenly withdraws the paternity claim for Mikey and retreats to another game of Bingo. How her mystery rent showed up just in time so she's not evicted by her "friend" Dottie is revealed and life in Southie goes on. "You'll find something," Jeanne assures her, even if it's just a line-job at the Gillette shaving gear plant.

What the show brings to the stageApposite viewing, Good People, in a world rife with mass refugee migrations and people forced to examine their beliefs around race and bigotry and fears of "the other". What are the components of "success" in life? What does the concept of "good" really mean? What role are one's roots and their formative years of neighbourhood & culture to play out across a person's life? Should loyalty-to-place carry much, if any, weight as one passes along the myriad pathways we traverse? These are valid and apropos questions, always, to raise with oneself.

The above said, fact remains Lindsay-Abaire's script strikes this dual citizen of U.S. and Canada as a wee-bit "quaint" and timed-out after watching t.v. footage of Syrian refugee kids gleefully discovering snow for the first time last week-end on Mt. Seymour. While The Trumpster bleats his huckster's horn S. of 49 and inspires lots of base-anger but even more fear-&-loathing among the majority, discussions of how someone from Lindsay-Abaire's South Boston or Spike Lee's Harlem or L.A.'s Watts or the DTES of Vancouver might find the way to "liberate" themselves from their childhood social station perhaps is not quite as magnetizing as it would have been on American theatre stages 2-3 years after the collapse of Wall Street in 2008. But that hardly ends the discussion.

Production values that hi-lite : Does theatre engage? Does it excite? Does it compel? Does it entertain? And to each of these questions, a la the Trevor Nunn dictum above, the answer in ACT's version of Good People is a palpable and robust Yes! 

Director Rachel Ditor deserves not only a round of Snaps! and backslaps for her casting this show, but also a h-u-g-e hug. Putting Colleen Wheeler and Jenn Griffen and Patti Allan together as the unholy Bingo trinity sisters was absolutely inspired. And rise to the occasion the three of them did wistfully and wonderfully. The energy among them riffing off each other had me in contortions the night through.

Couple that trifecta of talent with Lauchlin Johnston's superb scene wagon sets that ran smoother than a Tesla and Adrian Muir's command of the stage's spots and rheostats, and there's an evening's entertainment here of pure whimsical theatry.

Does the script drag in its exposition in Act I? Yes. Does wife Kate's character switch unbelievably-too-abruptly from her kvetching and nattering at husband Mikey and doubting his core honesty to then turning on ex-girlfriend Margie with lots of spontaneous sermonettes about how she's been an unfit mother for 30 years in Act II? Yes.

But. As this reviewer often remarks, "these are mere quibble". 

Acting pin-spots : Colleen Wheeler unquestionably commands the kliegs with her performance. It's as if she's channeling both Frances McDormand and Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano \ Nurse Jackie) in her stunning take on Margie Walsh. 

Jenn Griffin was stellar as the punchy mediator between Margie and Dottie, that ditzy-demonic-delight utterly aced by Patti Allan. 

Strong showing by each of Scott Bellis and Sereana Malani and Ben Elliott to round out the evening.

Did the voice-coaching to replicate Southie Boston accents (think Kennedy-low-brow here) work? Good efforts by all, but quite frankly I don't think all the effort was necessary. Whereas one can't quite imagine Mary Poppins spoken as flat Chicago mid-west un-twang, such might work here without detriment to the spirit of the Lindsay-Abaire purpose and intent. 

Who gonna like : Whatever theme-based or timeliness reservations I may have, to see this show for the Margie-kitchen and Bingo hall scenes is absolutely! worth the price of admission. Tight character acting coupled with superb set design and execution bring this piece alive! with their joint and several cleverness for an evening's delight particularly when the klippety-klop pace of the second act plays itself out.

Particulars :  By David Lindsay-Abaire.  At ACT's Stanley Theatre Granville @ 12th.  Run-time 135 minutes including intermission.  On until April 24th.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production team :  Director Rachel Ditor.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Sound Designer Murray Price.  Stage Manager Peter Jotkus.  Assistant Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.

Performers  : Pattie Allan (Dottie).  Scott Bellis (Mikey).  Ben Elliott (Stevie).  Jenn Griffin (Jeanne).  Sereana Malanai (Kate).  Colleen Wheeler (Margie).


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