The Irish working-class South Boston neighborhood known as Southie becomes like another character in David Lindsay-Abaire’s play “Good People,” at the Alliance Theatre through February 10. Urban, upfront, brash, tough, complicated, fleshed out, defiantly alive, relentlessly communal, with a long memory and a deep claim on its native sons, it’s a faraway place that may be hard for some Atlantans to immediately recognize and connect with. But those who go along for the ride will find a compelling and moving story with universal issues at its heart. “Good People” is a weighty, funny and accessible human drama that’s not to be missed.
Because setting is so important to the play, it’s fitting that the Alliance’s mainstage resources have been used to the maximum here, giving us some characteristically Southie places in all their gritty detail: the back of an alley, a kitchen, a bingo parlor. It may seem odd at first that a small, character-driven drama has giant and elaborate moving sets that wouldn’t look out of place in an over-the-top Broadway musical, but place is crucial here and the characters never seem overwhelmed by the vast and detailed world that designer Collete Pollard has created for them. In the second act — when we’ve left the neighborhood and we see non-Southieness in every last wineglass, ottoman, vase and silver picture frame — Southie’s complicated, ugly, even nightmarish, but often justified claims on the conscience quickly emerge. It’s not a place that is escaped easily.
At the center of it all is Margie (Kate Buddeke), a middle-aged woman who has lost her job at a dollar store and is now contemplating seeking help from a former boyfriend, Mike, a successful doctor who has made it out of Southie. Margie is a character who’s in a desperate situation, and Buddeke is called on to carry a great deal here, indeed almost the entire show.
The actress has a wonderful careworn, burdened but tough and likeable look that makes her a great match for the part. In a single scene, Margie can be funny, open, spunky, flirty, plain-spoken and then suddenly reveal herself as also aggravated, worn out, exhausted and defensive. Buddeke handles these transitions well, and though she remained a bit stiff and distant in a couple of opening scenes, the actress’ performance blazed brilliantly in the second act.
There’s an “adrift” quality to the first act — Margie has just lost her job, after all — and for some viewers it may feel a bit too undirected at first, though others may respond and recognize it as an existential sort of adriftness. During intermission, though there was narrative suspense, most audience members had no idea what Act II might look like and where the thing was headed. The brashness of the characters coupled with the quick and complete changes in setting did give the sense that anything might happen, and it could play out anywhere.
Regardless, in the second act, we arrive at a sticking place, and this is where the story’s real drama takes place. At Mike’s fancy suburban Chestnut Hill home, we feel for Margie’s fish-out-of-water awkwardness, her desperation, her wonderful humor and defensiveness, but we also begin to see her spikiness, resentment, even cruelty. The Southie attitude is one of admirable toughness and a certain form of solidarity, but Lindsay-Abaire is no romantic, and he doesn’t pull any punches: there’s damaging, even self-sabotaging, bitterness there too.
Thomas Vincent Kelly does an admirable job limning the sympathetic but still pretty douchey doctor. Margie calls him “lace curtain.” Southie is a neighborhood so poor and tough that putting up lace curtains in a window is seen as an unforgivable sign of snobbish pretense: a “lace curtain” family is one that has forgotten who they are. And though it’s not clear precisely why, we can see that this insult cuts him to the very core and stokes some very dark and personal hurt. Mike’s wife Kate (Kristen Ariza) enters into this war zone, entirely ready to throw some grenades of her own.
Lala Cochran and Brenda Bynum do great comic turns as Margie’s friend and landlady, with Andrew Benator providing a complicated, troubled, almost haunted portrayal of Margie’s gentle but morally torn former boss, Stevie.
“Good People” may be a bit of a hard sell to potential ticket buyers. Admittedly, “it’s about a middle-aged woman who loses her job at a dollar store and visits an old high school boyfriend” may not be a description that’s bound to get eager theater-goers lining up around the block. But the play represents the Alliance Theatre at its committed best. Funny, compelling, stylish, tough, smart, always questioning and never finding easy answers, it’s contemporary drama done right.