The taboo American topics of class and, to a slightly lesser extent, race get a full workout in the season-opening Steppenwolf Theatre production "Good People."
This very realistic drama, from playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, nonetheless finds a way to make powerful points about economics and opportunity, and its abundant natural comedy only serves to cover up a barely veiled mean streak that runs through all the characters.
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"Good People"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through Nov. 11
Parking: Metered street parking and a pay garage
Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes with intermission
Rating: Strong language, sophisticated themes, not for children
The opening scene finds Mariann Mayberry's Margaret getting fired from her low-end job at a South Boston Dollar Store. Her comically vindictive bad faith finds her telling the man who fires her, "You're lucky your mother's dead," because otherwise, as a childhood friend of Margaret, she'd never forgive her son.
"Luck," "nice," "good people": the characters bombard each other with these words and phrases and, as real as they might seem in an offhand way, Lindsay-Abaire makes sure they're loaded with significance.
After a rollicking, hilarious scene at home with her gal pals Dottie (Molly Regan) and Jean (Lusia Strus, who all but steals the show with lines as trashily tarty as her terry sweatpants), Margaret sets off to meet her old teenage flame Mikey Dillon in hopes that the now-well-to-do doctor can give her a job.
Margaret and Mike have an awkward scene in his doctor's office, but the power dynamic shifts from the moment Margaret removes her jacket and settles in. Regardless, an abashed Mike ends up saying he has nothing to offer her, but in what he describes as "a game of chicken" he invites her to his own birthday party at his home in the tony suburb of Chestnut Hill, thinking she'll never possibly accept.
Oh yes she will, especially when, in another highly comical scene in a bingo hall, Mike phones Margaret to tell her his daughter's sick and the party's off.
A likely story.
After intermission, the play goes directly to the home in Chestnut Hills, and the surprise -- not to give anything away -- is in the way it defers the anticipated conflict with more natural humor that seems to grow right out of the characters. That doesn't mean an audience member shouldn't prepare for an inevitable burst of the trademark Steppenwolf anger, or that a vase placed onstage like Chekhov's proverbial gun doesn't become an emblem of dread and anxiety.
This is an incredibly well-crafted play, naturalistic, and yet with themes of unemployment and joblessness, privilege and achievement (deserved or not) that resonate with the current campaign climate. It also benefits from strong performances across the board, including Keith Kupferer as Mike and Alana Arenas as his wife, Kate.
Unlike the Steppenwolf of legend, however, this production pulls its punches in a couple of places: late in the script, but also in the character of Margaret. Mayberry is marvelous as a lifelong "Southie" who is never going to escape her working-class neighborhood, but at the same time she's just too sympathetic to be doing the things she does, no matter what one makes of the triple twist involving her (never seen) adult daughter in the end.
The final bingo-hall coda likewise tries to set this turbulent drama down on a crowd-pleasing note, and it largely succeeds. Yet the old Steppenwolf, the uncompromising Steppenwolf, let the punches land and allowed the bodies to fall. This is a very good play and a quality production, but such is the onus of greatness.