Chicago Theater Review: GOOD PEOPLE (Steppenwolf)

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by Dan Zeff on September 24, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People is a wonderful play receiving a terrific production at the Steppenwolf Theatre and headed by a magnificent performance from Mariann Mayberry. Those are the facts. The rest is commentary.

Good People is set in Boston, especially working class south Boston, where the playwright grew up. The central character is a middle-aged single mother named Margaret (Margey to her friends). The opening scene sets the rest of the evening in motion, though it seems innocuous enough at the time. Margey is being fired from her minimum wage job as a cashier for chronic tardiness brought on by the needs of her retarded daughter at home. So now Margey is suddenly among the unemployed, desperately needing any kind of paycheck in a down economy to survive from day to day.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Good People at Steppenwolf in Chicago

One of Margey’s friends mentions that her old boyfriend Mike from high school days is now a successful Boston doctor. They hadn’t seen each other for 30 years but maybe the doctor could employ Margey, for old times’ sake. So Margey visits Mike in his office. The visit is superficially polite but does not go well. The doctor has nothing for Margey employment-wise and her associations with his south Boston childhood clearly make him uncomfortable. But Margey does wangle a reluctant invitation to Mike’s birthday party in a few days where she can circulate among his wealthy guests and maybe pick up a menial job.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Good People at Steppenwolf in ChicagoThat takes us to the second act in the doctor’s upscale home. Mike has called Margey to tell her the party has been called off because his child is sick. Margey thinks he’s lying to keep her away from the party where her blue collar manners might embarrass him with his toney friends. So Margey decides to crash the party, only to discover that it really has been canceled because the child was ill. After some initial awkwardness, Margey remains at Mike’s home, joined by his African American wife Kate. That’s when the dramatic fireworks start exploding.

It’s not fair to disclose the specific matters that come under fire among Mike, Margey, and Kate, but it can be reported that the issues touch on class, money, and how much the defining moments in life come from character, from environment, or from pure luck. There are a number of plot twists, none of them a surprise to the attentive viewer, but cumulatively they give the play tremendous emotional propulsion. Are the characters good people (as the play’s title suggests) or just average people dealt a hand by life that leads to success or struggle?

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Good People at Steppenwolf in Chicago

The play turns into an increasingly intense verbal battle between Mike and Margey, each side scoring points before falling back onto defense. Mike escaped from the economic and social confines of south Boston into a comfortable and successful existence in a wealthy Boston neighborhood. Margey remained imprisoned in the old ‘hood, burdened with a retarded daughter, bleak employment prospects, and above all, no money. We think we have a handle on the answers to the questions raised in their verbal combat, but there is a lingering sense that the truths they declare are relative and in the eye of the beholder. Is anyone lying, or at least hiding behind convenient self-delusions? This is one play where the post-curtain discussion with the performers would be well worth attending.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Good People at Steppenwolf in ChicagoThe six-member ensemble is flawless. Mayberry gives the performance of her acting life as Margey, abrasive and aggressive, but also vulnerable and desperate. She has her own code of conduct that may sustain her psychologically but work against her best interests in everyday life. Mayberry, with her pungent south Boston brogue, rings out all the changes in a complex character in a complex situation.

Mayberry is surrounded by tangy performances from Molly Regan and Lusia Strus as a pair of Margey’s “Southie” lady friends. Strus, who has been absent from Chicagoland stages for much too long, is especially entertaining as a bitchy bingo-playing buddy very open with her advice and sensitivity be damned. Keith Kupferer is outstanding as Mike, free from a “Southie” accent and working class sensibility. Alana Arenas makes her appearance in the last act as Mike’s wife, an intelligent and articulate woman who learns much about both her husband and Margey in an increasingly heated encounter and speaks her mind without losing her cool. It’s to the playwright’s credit that Kate’s blackness isn’t exploited, in spite of south Boston’s reputation for turbulent racial attitudes. Will Allen rounds out the cast as Margey’s childhood friend, the store manager who had to fire the woman, initiating the dramatic explosions to come. It’s a small but affecting role.

Dan Zeff’s Stage and Cinema review of Good People at Steppenwolf in Chicago

The production profits from a creative set design that takes the action from an alley to a south Boston apartment to a church bingo game to Mike’s plush home. Nan Cibula-Jenkins designed the class-defining costumes. Kevin Rigdon is the lighting designer and Rod Milburn and Michael Bodeen are responsibile for the sound design and original music. The sure-handed directing by K. Todd Freeman disarms any criticism.

Good People is one of those rare to be treasured occasions when a superb script connects with an impeccable production to present audiences with a playgoing experience filled with humor, humanity, and mind-churning drama. There isn’t a false note struck anywhere in this engrossing tale about one person who left the neighborhood and another who stayed, and the life-changing consequences that followed for both.


for Stage and Cinema‘s review of Good People at The Geffen in L.A., click here.


photos by Michael Brosilow

Good People
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre
ends on November 17, 2012
for tickets, call 312-335-1650 and Steppenwolf

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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