Good People makes good on a great script

Centaur’s Good People is a solid commentary on class, responsibility and the ethics of opportunity.

Karl Graboshas and Johanna Nutter in Good People.
Photo by Luce Tremblay-Gaudette.

The pamphlet for Centaur Theatre’s production of Good People announces the play as the most-produced in North America right now, here getting its English-Canadian premiere. And it makes sense. David Lindsay-Abaire’s script, which debuted two years ago on Broadway, is a timely reflection on class politics and opportunity, a neat prism that flashes on numerous facets of meritocracy’s winners and losers.

Set in rough-and-tumble “Southie,” a largely working-class, Irish-American section of Boston, the play trails Margie Walsh (Johanna Nutter) after she’s fired from a neighbourhood dollar store — a blow by any standards. With a developmentally challenged adult daughter at home requiring full-time care, she turns in despair to an old high school friend who’s since become a doctor, looking for work. Mike (Paul Hopkins) is a fertility specialist living in tony Chestnut Hill with his attractive, much younger African-American wife (Kim Nelson) and their young child, worlds away from the hardships of the life he left behind.

Margie is certain that Mike is avoiding her, but as rent day looms she overcomes her natural pleasantness and grows pushy. As Margie forces her way into his comfortable upmarket existence, Mike’s ambivalence about his rough past seems less and less benign when a dark secret drags the play’s themes of ethics, responsibility and opportunity into the fore.

Director Roy Surette cleverly cast local girl-done-good Johanna Nutter to play Margie, the role that won Frances McDormand a Tony. Nutter has toured widely with her acclaimed one-woman show My Pregnant Brother, and her turn as Margie showcases her promise as an up-and-coming luminary of the local stage, as she embodies the awkwardness of the chronically out-of-place.

John Dinning’s set is as clever as Centaur audiences have come to expect. Complicated Murphy bed flip-out doors and cabinets perfectly establish everything from an alley to a working-class kitchen to the stuffy office and posh home of the doctor, with seamless transitions between scenes. In particular, the short pieces where the southies play bingo under harsh drop-down fluorescent lights before a graffitied religious mural were priceless.

In spite of the heavy subject matter, the play was frequently side-splittingly hilarious, mining class differences for all the humour they’re worth. The cast’s timing was spot-on, and particularly Margie’s southie entourage, played to perfection by Sandy Ferguson and Catherine Lemieux. Lemiux’s sharp one-liners and Ferguson’s thickly accented doddering threatened to steal the show, even with strong leads from Hopkins and Nutter, and the laughs also helped to diffuse the play’s moral weight.

The penultimate scene dragged on a tad long, but it is in this showdown that Good People plays its dramatic hand. Both Margie and Mike effuse about the importance of staying “good people,” and Margie repeatedly accuses Mike of turning “lace-curtain” Irish and forgetting his roots. But the play repeatedly turns on this one point: how many people can you bring with you when you get ahead? How can you stay “good people” when you leave other people behind you in the dust? ■

Good People plays through Dec. 9 Centaur Theatre (453 St-François-Xavier), 8 p.m., sliding scale

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