Steppenwolf shines in economic thriller
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
Review by Catey Sullivan
With David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, Steppenwolf Theatre takes a penetrating look at class, unemployment and a depressingly intractable cycle of poverty that belies the fairy tale maxim that hard work and self-discipline are all it takes to wrench oneself out of economic depression.
Ably directed by K. Todd Freeman, the piece is a series of small, wrenching scenes – which seems as if it would be a far better fit for the Steppenwolf’s smaller upstairs theater than the cavernous space of he larger downstairs venue. Good People is also marred by a late-breaking revelation that strains credulity – and that is difficult to describe without giving away Lindsay-Abaire’s otherwise marvelously plotted narrative. But even with those flaws, Good People is well worth seeing, both for the playwright’s trenchant and timely look at survival on the slimmest margin of a collapsing economy and its disquieting conclusion that the difference between thriving and barely surviving has as much to do with luck as it does with hard work and integrity. Good People is also a welcome showcase for the deepening talents of long-time Steppenwolf ensemble member Maryann Mayberry, who plays Margaret, a dollar store employee caring for an adult daughter who is profoundly retarded.
Margaret is barely eking by in her dead-end job. When she loses that job at the top of act one, she teeters on the brink of insolvency. The grim economics of the South Boston neighborhood where she grew up is largely trapped in desperation as a way of life. Mayberry channels a complex mix of despair, rage and toughness as Margaret’s tenuous hold on hearth and home grows ever more precarious.
But it would be a mistake to classify Margaret as simply a downtrodden, hapless victim of the economy. She may have grown up poor and uncared for in South Boston’s slums, but she’s got a steely, savvy knack for manipulation that lives hand-in-glove with her ingrained sense of loyalty and kindness. She’s a tremendously layered character, and Mayberry brings her to fascinating life in all of her flaws and virtues.
Abaire’s twisting plot begins its revolutions when Margaret learns that an old boyfriend – once pretty much a child of the streets like herself – has established himself as a successful doctor in town. So Margaret takes public transportation out to visit Mike (Keith Kupferer) in his fancy office and beg for a job. In Margaret and Mike, Abaire provides two detailed individual portraits of entire economic philosophies: Mike sees himself as solely the product of hard work and responsible choices. Margaret largely views herself as trapped by forces beyond her control. There’s a hugely discomforting amount of truth in both of their beliefs – the random lottery of genetics gave Mike a huge leg up out of South Boston, the same is largely responsible for keeping Margaret mired.
The third major player in this taut economic thriller is Mike’s wife Kate (Alena Arenas), a privileged daughter of Georgetown whose monied upbringing can’t protect her from the same sort of cruelly casual judgments she initially passes on Margaret.
Abaire saves his most riveting scenes for the second act, when a series of increasingly intense confrontations among Mike, Margaret and Kate kick Good People into a high-stakes dramatic battleground. If Margaret’s pivotal, life-changing decision doesn’t entirely ring true by the close of Good People, well, that’s almost a quibble. In an election year all about the economy (and when is it not really, all about the economy?) Good People strikes a deeply resonant chord that will hit oh-so-close to home whether one is in South Boston or anywhere else in the country.
Good People continues through November 11th at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm and 7:30pm, Sundays at varying times. Tickets are $20-$86, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at steppenwolf.org. (Running time: play length, includes an intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Alana Arenas (Kate, voice of Ally); Mariann Mayberry (Margaret); Molly Regan (Dottie); Will Allan (Stevie); Keith Kupferer (Mike); Lusia Strus (Jean); Martha Lavey (voice of old lady), Alan Wilder (voice of priest); Kristin E. Ellis, Dina Facklis, Millicent Hurley, Kevin R. Kelly, Andrew Burden Swanson (understudies)
behind the scenes
K. Todd Freeman (director); Walt Spangler (set); Nan Cibula-Jenkins (costumes); Kevin Rigdon (lighting); Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen (sound design, original music); Erica Daniels (casting); Eva Breneman (dialect coach); Christine D. Freeburg (stage manager); Michelle Medvin (asst. stage manager); Michael Brosilow (photos); Nathan R. Green (asst. director); Amanda Clegg Lyon (asst. lighting); Christine Conley (wig, hair design); Andrew Berg, Chris Kristant, Eric Wegener (carpenters); Zoe Shiffrin (painter); Emily Guthrie (asst. props); Yazmin Dincer-Ubl, Matt Retzlaff, Vanessa Rundle (running crew); Lindsay Fussell (stage managemnt apprentice)