The versatile playwright-screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire defies easy labeling. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Hole, a compelling meditation on grief. Yet he also wrote the book for Shrek the Musical and the script for the current animated film Rise of the Guardians. His deft writing is all over the map, and he's making big bucks. Although Lindsay-Abaire was born and raised in blue-collar South Boston, the successful writer and his family now live in Brooklyn. And why not? It's a rare artist who lives his entire life in the same neighborhood. But the choices we make to uproot our lives — if indeed we are even allowed the luxury of making choices — are at the core of Lindsay-Abaire's most recent play, Good People, which is currently receiving a stellar production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
Meet Margaret, who has spent all her weary life in South Boston. Marriage to a neighborhood no-account didn't work out; now, when she's not caring for her special-needs daughter, Margaret works at a local discount store. With her thumbs jauntily tucked into her jeans pockets, this plucky single mom is a constant kidder who likes to "bust balls." When she loses her job, Margaret fancies that an ex-boyfriend — unseen for 30 years — might employ her. Why would he do that? Because, Margaret explains, Mikey "was always good people."
It is a delusional fantasy. Not only is Mike, who now lives in an upscale suburb, the former South Bostonite least likely to attend his high school reunion, but as a reproductive endocrinologist — a discipline that, not incidentally, explores the function of hormones — Mike requires trained employees in his specialized office. Margaret, however, is relentless, to the point of being shameless and self-destructive.
Stories that pit have vs. have-not are as old as time. Although this play is crisply confrontational, its arguments ("You can't blame me for your life") are not unique. What makes Good People so absorbing is not so much the debate between two points of view, but rather that two quite different thought processes are at work here. The actors who play Mike and Margaret even breathe differently. Early on, Margaret is comfortable in the drudge routine of her gritty Southie world, but when she intrudes upon Mike's wealthy environment, her mind must go into overdrive. Every question she's asked is like an obstacle course to be hurdled. Her staccato responses are uttered like shotgun blasts. By contrast, Mike's delivery is as smooth as the wine he pours into expensive goblets. Listen, too, for the deliberate delivery of Mike's tony wife, Kate. For a while, anyway, she's the referee, and her speech patterns are more meditative and objective.
The cast is impeccable. As the enigmatic Margaret, who manages to be both victim and predator, Denise Cormier delivers a scorching portrayal that captures the frantic desperation of a woman whose life is being cast adrift. Mike is rendered with confident nuance by R. Ward Duffy (who comes to the Rep from San Diego's Old Globe Theater, where he played this same role). Late in Act Two, watch the beautifully subtle way Duffy's face caves in when Mike's wife (Zoey Martinson) rises to her husband's defense. In the showy role of Margaret's blowsy friend, Elizabeth Ann Townsend delivers a brazen performance that seems to be lovingly modeled after Marsha Mason in Cinderella Liberty.
Good People needs time to kick in. In Act One the initial reunion between Mike and Margaret feels awkward; the Rep stage is so wide, the actors seem lost. Even so, that scene ignites the fuse for the fireworks that will light up the stage in Act Two. By evening's end, under the calibrated direction of Seth Gordon, the production is thoughtful, provocative, gripping — and so unpredictable that even after the story has concluded, you might feel a desire to sit through Good People a second time in order to get a clearer handle on what you've just seen.