It would be an interesting Rorschach test to ask people, “Who is the central character?” in David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People.”
First, you would have to see the play in its Twin Cities premiere at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. That should be an easy chore. Lindsay-Abaire has written a well-structured scenario on ambition, class and the resignation that sometimes attends those who make questionable choices. Director Joel Sass applies the lightest of touches to his naturalistic production, played out efficiently on his own set designs that highlight the contrast of blue-collar South Boston and wine-and-cheese Chestnut Hill.
On first blush, the play belongs to Margie (Virginia Burke), the flinty and friendly single mother who struggles to hold her life together. As we open, she has lost her cashier job for being habitually late. At home, she’s surrounded by a grown daughter with developmental disabilities and friends who share equal parts sympathy and bad advice. Winning at bingo would be a highlight for her.
Seeking a job, Margie barges in on an old childhood friend, a doctor whom she briefly dated. “Mikey” Dillon (James Denton) has no job for her but invites her out to his fashionable home in Chestnut Hill.
Although Lindsay-Abaire ultimately skews the equation with a manipulative and emotional bomb, he allows a toothsome and spirited joust between Mike and Margie (nicely observed in Andrea Gross’ costuming).
Let it be said that Burke’s work as Margie has it all over Denton’s Mike. Burke presents a tough woman who remains kind and somehow emotionally content with her ragged life. Her performance has nuance, heart and honesty. Denton, known to TV audiences for his work on “Desperate Housewives,” is more awkward and less at ease in the skin of Mike.
So who gets your sympathy — or rather empathy? Mike escaped the mean streets, and actions of which he is not proud. Margie is a reminder of what he left, and she sees in Mike the attainment of something she might have had. Are you that person who determined at a young age to shed your surroundings and friends to create a new identity? Or do you feel somehow bound by your history, relationships and choices? Burke’s Margie wins our admiration and heart; however, how many of us identify with Mike’s quest to shake off the dust of his past?
“Do we really know each other after 30 years?” Mike asks Margie at one point. This fine play provokes us to ask that question and then consider deeply the complexity of our response.
Sass’ cast also includes Angela Timberman in a funny and perfectly tuned performance as Margie’s best friend, and Hope Cervantes as Mike’s wife. Cervantes’ moment is brief, but she loads it with power and gravity.
You need to stick with Lindsay-Abaire through the atmospheric first act — sketches of life in South BAH-ston — before he digs into the muscle of his ideas. It is worth the wait.