South Boston is blue-collar Irish through and through. A combination of shop work, factory work, informal childcare and bingo is how most of the community gets through life. Every so often, one escapes to a fancier neighborhood — through hard work, a lucky break or a mix of the two — to become what's mockingly called "lace-curtain Irish" by their one-time neighbors in Southie.
How two of those old neighbors end up in wildly different places in life through the choices they make, and what happens when those choices collide, is the premise of David Linday-Abaire's Good People, now playing at Redwood Curtain Theatre.
At the center of the story are Margie (Peggy Metzger), the middle-aged single mother of developmentally-disabled adult child Joyce, and Mike (Craig Benson), a successful fertility specialist married to Kate, an African-American professor of literature (Kenya Uhuru). When we first meet Margie, she is being laid off from yet another dead-end job by her exasperated manager Stevie (Matthew Atkins) because her landlady Dottie (Susan Abbey) didn't show up on time to sit with Joyce. As Margie, Dottie and good friend Jean (Pamela Long) toss around ideas for how Margie can find a new job in time to pay next month's rent, Jean comes up with an off-the-wall idea. Why not get in touch with Mike from the old neighborhood and ask him for a job? After all, once a Southie, always a Southie. And Southies are good people.
So Margie tracks Mike down to his fancy office (she tried calling but no one would put her through) and talks her way into his consulting room. Awkward catch-up small talk ensues but when the niceties run out, Margie gets uncomfortable with Mike's status in life — the nice house, the pretty young wife, the five-dollar words. She accuses Mike of becoming lace-curtain Irish. Mike accuses Margie of being passive-aggressive. Eventually, if only to get Peggy out of his office, Mike invites her to his birthday party that weekend under the pretense that one of his "comfortable but not rich" friends might have work for her.
Back in Southie, Jean is so delighted her plan is working that she comes up with another idea to extract money from Mike, but then Margie gets a call from Mike telling her the party's been canceled. She figures she's being blown off and decides to go anyway, setting in motion the unraveling of Mike's carefully constructed lace curtains. Kate and Margie discover that they have a lot in common when it comes to dealing with white male privilege, especially with regard to Mike's apparent willful amnesia concerning the reality of his life in Southie. As things begin to spiral out of (Mike's) control, Margie chooses to drop Jean's bombshell of an idea — that it's possible Mike is Joyce's father. Far from giving her back control of the situation, however, Margie finds herself in the firing line. How she gets herself out of it is a beautifully crafted exercise by Lindsay-Abaire that makes this play the masterpiece it is.
Metzger is quite simply extraordinary as Margie — a stunning performance that's up there with Frances McDormand's Tony-winning portrayal on Broadway. She lets us see just enough of the tough-but sensitive Margie that we can't help but root for her as "good people," despite her all-too-human failings. She's simply too nice to follow through on the mean tricks the delightfully sly and snarky Long's Jean tosses to her, or do anything other than agree to the veiled eviction threats issued by Abbey's calculating yet ultimately sympathetic Dottie. Uhuru is a welcome addition to the growing roster of actors of color in Humboldt County, delivering a nuanced performance as she sets up, and then observes, Mike and Margie as they argue about choices, luck and hard work. Benson is very believable as the one who got away when reminiscing at a casual level but seems to be suppressing his inner Southie a little too much when the lace curtains get ripped away from his marriage — he just needs to let go a little more. Atkins, too, is a little timid; he shows promise as Stevie, but is not yet fully comfortable in the store manager's skin; this should improve over time, since he turns out to be good people too, in the end.
The two-handed direction by Cassandra Hesseltine and Kaitlyn Samuel works surprisingly well; the vision is Hesseltine's, but her film commissioner duties prevented her from handling the direction alone, so she recruited Samuel to handle much of the implementation. The result is a seamless production, thanks in no small part to Morgan Reeves' flawless stage management. Robert Pickering's muted scenic design makes great use of Redwood Curtain's challenging space and Calder Johnson's lighting design only enhances the atmosphere as it shifts in and out of Southie, ably underscored by Cory Stewart's clever sound design. Catherine Brown's costume designs are right on the money, especially Dottie's best bingo outfits.
This is one of the best productions I've seen at Redwood Curtain in a long time. Miss it at your peril.
Redwood Curtain Theatre's Good People runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through Nov. 18, with a 2 p.m. performance on Sunday, Nov. 12. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
North Coast Repertory presents the Fosse-inflected meta-musical journey of Pippin, playing Nov. 9 through Dec. 9. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.