In the most devastating scene of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," a young businessman named Howard fires Willy Loman, even though the past-his-prime salesman knew his new boss when Howard was still a baby. At least Willy gets his pink slip while sitting in an office. No such dignified consideration is afforded Margaret, the 50ish central character in David Lindsay-Abaire's superbly written play about class loyalty and warfare in South Boston. Margaret gets fired from her $9-something-an-hour job in a Dollar Store while meeting with her callow kid-boss in an alley. The poor, tardy woman gets terminated while standing next to a trash bin.
Such is the lot of the working-class, poorly educated, debt-strapped new American worker. And whatever your demographic or background, you can't watch that scene, one of the best opening scenes of any new Broadway drama these past few years, without thinking about whether some version of this, one day, will happen to you.
No wonder Margaret, a proud Southie who has a disabled kid at home and years of struggle behind her, is angry. And as performed by Mariann Mayberry in a blisteringly complex performance at the Steppenwolf Theatre, flowing out from the stage in great, overlapping waves of fury, resentment, fear and sheer need, Margaret is a formidable characterization that, thanks to the best writing of Lindsay-Abaire's career to date, has a searing effect on an audience, especially in a city like Chicago, with many tribal and socioeconomic commonalities with Boston. For those of us most familiar with Mayberry's spunky, sparky work in Chicago a decade or more ago, this current performance from an older woman is, frankly, a revelation. You see that same dorky playfulness and hunger for success in her eyes, but also so much more of the pain of what has and has not come to pass. She delivers, to borrow a phrase popular in Boston, one heck of a Big Dig.
When I saw "Good People" on Broadway last year — in another excellent, but tonally different, production, starring Frances McDormand — I remember thinking, just a few minutes in, that here was an ideal play for Steppenwolf, a company that could act the stuffing out of such a play, filled as it is with working-class characters and, antagonistically, a guy from the old neighborhood, Mike (Keith Kupferer), who has made doctor-good but who clings to respectability and his posh, perspicacious wife, Kate (Alana Arenas), with thin fingernails, ever-terrified that his inner Southie beast suddenly will emerge.
That is exactly what has happened: K. Todd Freeman's fiery production is less polished than the Broadway original, and notably more aggressive and raw. The humor in the piece is less evident, but its more fatalistic themes are amplified and the great intimacy possible at Steppenwolf connects this fine American play more intensely to the audience, who, at Saturday night's performance, was interrupting Act 2 events with gasps and other noises, coming darn close to expressing a desire for some collective intervention.
Steppenwolf's weird, bingo-ball poster image notwithstanding, "Good People" really is a meditation on a turn of phrase that themed a night of the recent Republican National Convention, "We Built It," itself a response to President Barack Obama's recent statement that "If you've got a business — you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." After the cash-strapped, unemployed Margaret decides to go find Mike and beg for a job from him, she finds a man who says, in essence, that he built his life by himself, through hard work, entrepreneurship and good choices. He contrasts that with the chaotic Margaret's inability to get her act together and, like her friends Jean (the ebullient and emotional Lusia Strus) and Dottie (a deflated Molly Regan), failing to get out of the old 'hood. Even Steve (the aptly nervous Will Allan), the manager who fires Margaret from the Dollar Store, is still by her side at Southie bingo, just a few very small wins ahead.
But with the playwright at her side, Margaret is on a mission to point out that luck and the support of a whole community played as big a part as anything in Mike's secure level of success — most notably a father who watched out for him on the tough, racially charged streets, a father she did not have herself. You certainly see where Lindsay-Abaire's sympathies lie, but this play also is a clear-eyed portrait of what holds some working-class folks back: a cycle of rough circumstances, sure, but also a lack of vision or follow-through, and although Lindsay-Abaire himself grew up poor in South Boston, he still is able to probe the dark side of an inward-turning community that can resent success as much as it hates outsiders.
These kinds of class-driven, realistic plays are tough to write in a way that the plot holds together, but you won't ever find yourself ahead of events in "Good People," which Lindsay-Abaire has structured with a mystery that unravels and then closes up, only to unravel again, and then again, in an entirely different direction. Unpretentious in its structure and compassionate in notion, this is a well-made play, in the best sense of the term, driven by wrenching confrontations. Those conversations are blistering throughout, whether it's Mayberry taking on Arenas, an actress who can hold her fire for long, long minutes only to unleash ballistic-type weapons when pushed, or the lower-key Kupferer turning beet-red in the face when cornered, or Strus fighting almost to the death for a friend she serves better than that friend realizes. Filled with good people, this is a play toward which one leans in, feeling for all these fearful characters and scared yourself of the perhaps-inexorable changes in their world.
When: Through Nov. 11
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $20-86 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye