Steppenwolf’s excellent ‘Good People’ questions our bootstrap pulling power

Lusia Strus and Mariann Mayberry in Steppenwolf’s “Good People.”

Now firmly in my 30s, its amazing the number of my friends who are living paycheck to paycheck — including, to a degree, me. Getting ahead is tough, sometimes impossible, and with the recent news that college grads are earning significantly less than in 2005, the phrase “quality of life” requires a reassessment.

Take Margie, a single, middle-aged mother of an adult mentally handicapped daughter who’s our focal point in David Lindsay-Abair’s powerful play, Good People. We meet her in the back ally of a South Boston dollar store where a young manager nervously fires her for arriving late to work one too many times. Even though she has valid excuses (her daughter), he has pressure to make tough decisions from his boss. Suddenly, Margie is left by the dumpsters, the wind knocked out of her, no back-up plan. That is, until she learns that her former high school boyfriend Mike (Keith Kupferer), a fellow “Southie” who’s done good for himself, has returned to Boston to open his new practice, and she sees a glimmer of opportunity.

As played by a no-nonsense Mariann Mayberry, we’re instantly rooting for Margie. She’s realistic about her exceptions, her limitations and her place in society. And she’s pissed about it — as she should be. When she crashes Mike’s birthday party (a scene which dominates the searing second act), you learn that while her primary goal is to get a job, there’s an underlying motive that even surprises Margie when it explodes out of her like a repressed volcano.

Good People is, simply said, a damn good play. Using a story that’s both straightforward and immensely compelling, Lindsay-Abaire presents the notions of class and the power one actually has in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in a society where the cards already seem firmly stacked against you. “You’ve made some wise choices,” Margie fires back at a smug Mike as he sits in his leather Herman Miller chair, “But you’re wrong if you think everyone has them.”

Director K. Todd Freeman wisely keeps the ensemble acting front-and-center, aided by Walt Spangler’s set design. Lusia Strus and Molly Regan bring local color and honesty as Margie’s opinionated friends and follow bingo players.

Finally, this play made me think of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, which tells the story of the “working homeless.” An America where people are dog paddling to stay afloat in an ocean that keeps getting deeper and more turbulent. Eye-opening, sobering stuff; highly recommended.

“Good People” plays through November 11 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre. More info here >

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