"Good People," David Lindsay-Abaire's superb examination of class and self-preservation, shows us life on the verge of economic ruin.
And in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's swift, solid revival of this ever-relevant 2011 play, director Connie Canaday Howard makes certain we don't forget what that looks like.
"Good People"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Playhouse Theater at the McAninch Arts Center, College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 942-4000, www.atthemac.org/buffalo-theatre-ensemble
Running time: About two hours, 10 minutes with intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot adjacent to the McAninch Arts Center
Rating: For adults, includes mature subject matter and language
Howard vividly reminds us of the razor's edge on which the working-poor perch in act two. That's when the action shifts from blue-collar South Boston -- a former enclave for Irish immigrants known as Southie to locals, such as struggling single-mom Margie -- to a tony suburb where Margie's high school boyfriend Mike, now a renowned fertility specialist, resides.
Margie (a fiercely authentic Amelia Barrett) alternates eking out a living at a series of minimum-wage jobs with caring for her disabled adult daughter, Joyce. Her position on the economic ladder's bottom rung gets even more precarious after twenty-something manager Stevie (Benedict L. Slabik II) fires her for being perpetually late to her job at The Dollar Store.
The fault actually rests with Margie's landlady Dottie (Annie Slivinski, whose selfish affability is spot-on). She watches Joyce for $50 per week, but regularly shows up late to Margie's apartment.
Margie's friend Jean (a terrifically acerbic Kelli Walker) suggests she contact Mike about a job, even though they haven't seen each other for 30 years.
A tense, deliciously awkward and increasingly uncomfortable reunion ensues. After Mike (Bryan Burke) informs Margie he has no openings, she derides him as "lace-curtain Irish," referring to second-generation Irish who abandon their working-class roots for white-collar pursuits. Eventually, she guilts him into inviting her to his upcoming birthday party thrown by his younger wife, Kate (Raina Lynn). A few days later, Mike cancels, claiming his daughter is ill. Convinced he's lying because he doesn't want her around his upper-crust friends, Margie shows up anyway.
BTE's production is quite good. Barrett in particular has some wonderful moments. Her monologue about something as innocuous as a chipped tooth sending her into a downward financial spiral is terrific. And the interactions between Margie, Dottie and Jean are as genuine as they are funny.
But the production's best scenes involve the simmering exchanges between Barrett's resentful, desperate Margie and Burke's defensive, defiant Mike. Their performances reflect a kind of truthfulness some of the younger cast members lack.
The second act unfolds mostly in Mike and Kate's well-lit living room, which occupies center stage. (The sets are by Ron Leaneagh.) Flanking the couple's upscale home is Margie's shabby apartment and the grimy alley behind The Dollar Store. The evidence of Margie's miserable existence remains visible, but in shadow. Howard's shrewd staging suggests the impossibility of Margie ever escaping her Southie roots. Even out of sight, they're never really out of mind. Not hers. Not ours.
To reveal more would spoil the play. Suffice to say, arguments ensue about opportunities each of them had (or didn't have) and choices they made or failed to make because circumstances prevented it.
They believe themselves to be "good people," but what constitutes "good"? Does being a good person mean looking out for others even if it means sacrificing yourself? Or does it mean putting yourself first -- firing someone else to keep a job, leaving the neighborhood for better opportunities -- to remain firmly planted on that increasingly slippery economic ladder?