Good, and bad, and just people

David Lindsay-Abaire's "Good People" at Clackamas Rep has some spine beneath the laughter

In the opening to the David Lindsay-Abaire play Good People, we watch Margie, a single mother with a disabled adult daughter, talk with her young boss, Stevie, in the grimy alley behind the Dollar Store where they work. Amid the milk crates and the smelly Dumpster, citing her long history of chronic tardiness, he fires her. She gets defensive, then desperate. She tries bargaining, tries pointing the finger at other employees, tries appealing to his sympathies — all to no avail. By the end of the scene, her already meager life has become much more precarious.

And it’s a barrel of laughs.

“Oh, this is cute,” said a woman in the audience (repeatedly, at full conversational volume, during the scene) at Friday’s opening night performance by Clackamas Repertory Theatre.

Well, yes, in a way.

But then, no, not really.

Doren Elias and Lorraine Bahr in "Good People." Photo: Travis Nodurft

Doren Elias and Lorraine Bahr in “Good People.” Photo: Travis Nodurft

Good People, which earned Lindsay-Abaire a 2011 Tony nomination, appears at the outset to be a light comedy about the travails of working-class life. But it grows organically into a layered, nuanced examination of the ethical challenges involved in living the American Dream or in just getting by.

Getting by isn’t easy for Margie Walsh, played here by Lorraine Bahr with a thick, coarse South Boston accent and a weary, nervous laugh. “She’s funny!,” exclaimed the aforementioned woman in the audience (again repeatedly, at full conversational volume, during the scene — and hardly the only one in the crowd with this habit). And yes, she sure is. Lindsay-Abaire has written Margie as a mouthy sort, good-natured but quick with a barb, and Bahr brings her colorfully to life, her slouchy gait a mixture of weariness and determination, the glimmer in her eye a ready charm.

Funny as it is, from the outset Bahr’s performance has subtly darker emotional shadings that suggest the deeper considerations Lindsay-Abaire has in store. On opening night, though, the tonal shifts meant to get us to those deeper levels took a while to take effect, and it was hard to tell if that was because director David Smith-English had let the generally strong performances by Cyndy Smith-English and Amanda Valley as Margie’s pals veer a touch too close to sitcom broadness, or if the audience was too intent on laughing on to notice. (Yes, yes, it’s a comedy; that doesn’t mean yucks are its raison d’etre. Then again, no one made me the Amusement Police.)

Margie’s desperation leads her to look up an old friend/flame, Mike, a fellow Southie who has escaped the hardscrabble Boston neighborhood to earn a career as a reproductive endocrinologist and a home in affluent Chestnut Hill. At first she just hopes he might have a job for her, or that he knows someone who might. Seeing such prospects as remote, her friend Jean suggests that Margie instead “do a Maury Povich on him”: That is, tell the doctor that her daughter wasn’t born premature, a claim which would put the time of the child’s conception within the brief window that Margie and Mike had dated as teens. In any case, a visit to Chestnut Hill (tastefully rendered in Chris Whitten’s scenic design) — and Mike’s decidedly upper-class black wife, Kate — brings all sorts of secrets into play.

Mike is in some ways a stand-in for Lindsay-Abaire himself, who grew up in Southie but got a scholarship to a suburban prep school, then went on to Sarah Lawrence College, Juilliard and, eventually, a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for the play Rabbit Hole. The doctor is a sympathetic character, quite justifiably discomfited by the sudden reappearance of his past, with all of Margie’s  manipulations and insinuations — most damning of which is the notion that he’s ashamed of his Southie roots and has become “all lace-curtain Irish now.”

Unlike the playwright, the doctor believes he’s achieved his station solely through his own hard work. Margie points out that he had advantages and breaks that others didn’t.

Good People is about social class in America, certainly, but that subject serves more as frame than a theme, while Lindsay-Abaire provokes thoughts about ambition, identity, loyalty, charity, honesty, choice, responsibility and so on. And while he’s too good a writer to make anyone a paragon on any count, there’s no irony implied in the play’s title.

While Bahr is the production’s vibrant center, Doren Elias, alternately classy, cagey and hotly indignant as Mike, and Damaris Webb, sugar-coated mettle as Kate, serve as worthy foils; and Sam Levi as Stevie, the Dollar Store middle-manager, provides an additional glimpse of Southie character, with no whiff of caricature.

In the end, everyone’s predicaments and choices ring true. And that counts for a lot more than cute.

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