There’s a funny contrast at the heart of Good People. Its heroine is Margie, a South Boston mother working paycheck to paycheck who runs out of paychecks. She earns our sympathy almost immediately, with a can-do spirit and relentless drive. But most of us in the audience aren’t Margies.
At best, we resemble Mike, her former love interest who made it out of Southie, who Margie guilts into inviting her to a party of his wealthy friends. Maybe our bank accounts aren’t as large, or we didn’t originate from the same level of poverty, but it’s safe to say very few, if any, opening night attendees at the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse are in as precarious a financial position as Margie. So when that night turns sour, as all the signs and scenes leading up to it suggest it will, it feels like she’s turned on us, the good people who offered her the kindness of our interest for a single evening — despite the fact that we know, deep down, she’s firmly, firmly in the right.
It’s an unsettling masterstroke, but not the first nor the last. David Lindsay-Abaire’s script is full of class, race and culture clashes, and the Rep’s cast, led by Laura Gordon as Margie, has absolutely no trouble mining them for comedy and pathos alike.
The Rep’s been promoting the show as a star vehicle for Gordon, and it’s well-deserved. They can’t claim credit for having picked her for the role first — she first stepped into Margie’s shoes at Madison’s Forward Theater in 2013 — but giving her a second shot at the character under the direction of Kate Buckley is worth applause in itself.
Margie’s not a woman in a position to make a lot of decisions. Things just happen to her: Guardians for her mentally disabled daughter run late; bosses begrudgingly fire her; landlords threaten to put her on the street. Gordon’s Margie hasn’t stopped believing she can change that, though. She carries herself with the weight of every chain reaction that’s brought her to the present moment, and throws herself at every chance that comes her way, including pursuing Mike (Michael Elich) when she discovers he’s returned to Boston.
What keeps Gordon’s Margie heroic instead of desperate is she’s so damn likable. She lets her old boss sit next to her at bingo; firing her wasn’t his call. She cuts the landlord slack for trying to push her out; her son’s having trouble paying his rent too. She even tries to stick to her script with Mike — “I just need a job” — instead of pulling out her trump card: Her daughter might be his.
Likely to be underrated are Gordon’s co-actors. None of them rises to challenge Margie’s position as the central character (Mike seems written to vie with her, but Elich and Buckley have wisely made him more a foil than a rival viewpoint), and the production is the better for it. Margie’s best friend Jean (Tami Workentin), landlord Dottie (Laura T. Fisher) and ex-boss Stevie (Bernard Balbot) flesh out the world Margie lives in, with local legends told over and over and names of longtime Southies repeated like talismans or warnings. Mike and his wife Kate (Jennifer Latimore) get to paint in a more familiar picture of wealth, easily translatable from Boston to Milwaukee, but they too give it their own particular shadings.
Margie alone with Stevie or Mike is captivating, or expositionally necessary, but the play lights up with three or more players. Workentin gets the best laugh lines, delivered wearing coordinated leopard-print shirts and leg warmers that are a few laughs in and of themselves (many thanks to costume designer Rachel Healy). And when Margie, Mike and Kate are together, Latimore threatens to steal the show, an admirable achievement for the Rep Intern Company actor. She’s alternately a sympathetic ally for Margie scandalized by her husband or an unexpected adversary adamant that her husband’s despicable Southie ex leave their home immediately — but maintains a fierce, calculated demeanor no matter who she’s chastising.
As critical to Good People’s success as any piece of dialogue or scathing glance is Kevin Depinet’s set, one of the best I’ve ever seen at the Powerhouse. Modular and automated, the set is built around a tall pillar with a doorway, which spins to coordinate with sliding-in walls — a kitchen counter here, a long bookshelf there, a bingo hall that drops from the ceiling. In its slick transitions, from grimy bingo hall to opulent homestead and back, it’s a visual reminder of how little choice Margie — or Mike — has had in what scenes their lives are set.
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Good People runs through Feb. 15 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.
Margie (Laura Gordon, right) visits ex-boyfriend Mike and his wife Kate (Michael Elich and Jennifer Latimore) in the hopes of securing a job.