Good with people, reluctantly

David Harrower's contemporary two-hander "Good With People" does fascinating personal battle in Our Shoes Are Red's hands

Portland is a town where good theater happens in little spaces. Not just small Equity houses like Artists Rep and Portland Center Stage’s black box Ellyn Bye Studio, but holes-in-the-wall and carved-out places like defunkt, the Shoe Box, and Shaking the Tree, spaces where a good old-fashioned Shakespeare history or a big-scale Broadway musical might have more people onstage than seats in the house. And right now, in something of a popup production, you can find good theater in the little Performance Works NW, off of Southeast Foster Road, where one evening late last week roughly thirty people came close to filling the available seats and two people prowled the stage.

Evan (Matt DiBiasio) lands back home, bringing his baggage with him. Photo: Devon Allen

Those two actors were Devon Allen and Matt DiBiasio, for their occasional producing company Our Shoes Are Red/The Performance Lab, and they were performing the Scottish playwright David Harrower’s 2010 character drama Good With People. Allen is Helen Hughes, who works in a small hotel  called the Seaview near a loch in the town of Helensburgh, Scotland, on the north shore of the Firth of Clyde. DiBiasio is Evan Bold, a traveler with a past, and the only guest we see in the course of the hour-long play.

There is history to the setting of Good With People. Helensburgh is a real town, about twenty-five miles northwest of Glasgow and five miles from the site of Faslane, a strategic naval base that was established during World War II and is now home to several Trident nuclear submarines. The relationship between town and base is strong and knotty. The base is a major employer and a boon to the local economy. It also brings outsiders into a tight and traditional small community, and has attracted a small but adamant permanent resistance movement – a “peace camp” that’s kept vigil and raised the occasional anti-nuclear ruckus for the past thirty-five years. Helen is a townie, and no big fan of the nukes. Evan grew up on the base, and left, and now, for a night and a day at least, has come home.

Neither of these characters, as it turns out, seems all that good with people – certainly not with each other. Evan enters after a long journey tired and curt and dismissive and demanding, a visitor who’s paying good money and expects things done. Helen has her ways, and they do not include accommodating … well, much of anything that is outside the boundaries of the ways she has. Allen, speaking in a thick dialect and planting her feet stolidly, exudes the subtle resistance of a displeased bureaucrat, keeping just this side (usually) of open antagonism as she makes clear that anything Evan gets is against her better judgment, and he will get the very least that she can offer. DiBiasio, in return, is sharp and belittling: He’s not having any of it. And so the dance of pseudo-civilization goes on.

The Seaview: It ain’t the Ritz. Photo: Devon Allen

One of the intriguing things about Harrower’s play is that despite the obvious tensions between the base and its protestors, that’s not really what Good With People is about. Or it is, but only glancingly. It barely mentions the political issues. What’s going on here is something more purely personal. Evan went to school with Helen’s son, and there was an … incident. It was a long time ago, and Evan tried to make amends, but a grudge is a grudge, and it grows. And as the story turns even the incident, which seems so clear-cut, becomes more muddy and complex. What were the circumstances? Who is truly arrogant and dismissive? Do the townies feel superior to the base brats, or is it the other way around, or a bit of each, or what? And how, except personally, can the cycle be broken? At a time when politics has driven America and to a lesser extent Europe into seemingly irresolvable competing camps, a story that emphasizes the assumptions and mixed signals of personal betrayals and the possibility of personal redemptions casts a corrosive cultural cleaving into an interesting light. There is no happy ending to Harrower’s play. Nevertheless, something shifts, and there is a small shaft of light.

Good With People is a small play, but well-crafted, with important things on its mind. DiBiasio and Allen, aided by lighting designer Jeff Forbes and sound designer Phillip Johnson (the sea does lap and wave), pay attention, and do it credit. Sometimes one and one make more than two.

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Our Shoes Are Red/The Performance Lab’s Good With People concludes with performances Thursday-Saturday, June 22-24, at Performance Works NW, 4625 S.E. 67th Avenue. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

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