Reviewed by Lisa Lanzi
It is eternally a mystery to me, as a distant observer, that America still (in some quarters) proclaims itself a ‘classless society’. In his 1821 autobiography, Thomas Jefferson wrote that he deemed it essential to a well-ordered republic to “annul hereditary privilege”. He had proposed that he wished “… instead of an aristocracy of wealth, of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent…”. Within the narrative of Good People there are layers and themes that dissect and compare differences between choice and luck, privilege and hard work, goodness and spite, but it is up to the audience to make their own decisions about the trajectory of the characters and their worthiness.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s writing is a gift to performers with its rhythmic text, rich imagery and well-crafted conversational dialogue. In Good People, he draws on his own upbringing in South Boston’s Irish-Catholic, blue collar and quite often racist neighbourhood (Southie) to bring both emotion and dark humour to a story of struggle. The play won the 2011 New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play and featured Frances McDormand as lead in the Broadway premiere. Adelaide Repertory Theatre, the oldest surviving amateur theatre company in the Southern Hemisphere, presents a solid production of Good People ably directed by Nick Fagan.
One pleasing facet of Good People is the range of roles for mature women. Margie (Rachel Burfield) is a single mother with huge responsibilities newly fired from another minimum wage job and wondering how she can make rent; Jean, her sassy but supportive friend of many years (Cate Rogers) is full of advice and cuss words; Dotty (Lyn Crowther) as both friend and landlord is brittle but tough and sardonic with her own emotional burdens; Kate, Mike’s wife and a literary professor (Rhoda Sylvester) is a Washington DC native from an academic family, essentially a compassionate woman but irrevocably entrenched in her own privilege and a world away from truly understanding Margie’s life.
The cast works well as an ensemble but Rachel Burfield as Margie is exceptional. Everything about her performance is mesmerising: characterisation, excellent Bostonian ‘Southie’ accent, presence, vocal power, emotional range. Margie is not at all a one dimensional ‘poor person’, conversely exuding dignity and empathy then at times descending to vindictiveness. Burfield manages to portray a woman the audience can feel compassion for in one moment but doubt her motives during another. As a single mother of the unseen Joycie, her disabled adult daughter, Margie is trapped in a cycle of poverty with no choice but to finagle and even manipulate to survive, despite her friends telling her she is ‘too nice’. Explaining that straightforward desire isn’t enough to make escape possible and that choice was denied her, in the second act Margie reminds Mike that she didn’t have the support he did – no-one watched out the window for her and she was never counselled about scholarships or the possibility of higher education.
Nicholas Bishop as Mike also commands the stage to present another complex character. After a brief summer relationship with Margie, Mike leaves Southie to study and eventually becomes a doctor, never to return. Bishop also has exemplary vocal reach and navigates his role with understanding and consideration as Mike skates between arrogance and guilt, pride and squirming awkwardness as more of his past (and murky present) is gradually revealed.
The minor character of Stevie (Curtis Shipley) is perhaps the only truly ‘good’ person in the tale. As the young manager of the Dollar Store forced by his district manager to fire Margie due to her regular tardiness, he is bombarded with prejudice over both his relationship with a Thai woman and his predilection for Bingo. It is later revealed that those Bingo winnings are used to cover Margie’s rent even though the speculation from the Southie women is that Mike and/or Kate sent the money as an act of charity.
Every aspect of Good People is thought provoking and carefully presents examples of hard-luck resentment, survivor guilt and multifaceted questions of opportunity versus choice. No judgement is presented by the playwright, no ethical high ground is gained for long by any character but the tale and the individual stories are compelling and rich. Is it strength of character and vigorous agency or luck that determines an individual’s fate? There is no definitive answer but more a gradient of possibilities.