Make it a point to get to Steppenwolf Theatre Company by November 11 and you will be amply rewarded. Steppenwolf ensemble member K. Todd Freeman’s production of “Good People” has it all: a powerful, provocative play leavened by humor; topnotch performances by well-cast actors; and perfectly executed sets and costumes that tell a story all on their own.
Everyone involved in this production deserves kudos, but the citations must begin with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who grew up in South Boston, the economically depressed neighborhood that serves as the setting for much of “Good People.” That’s where the play opens, in the alley behind a dollar store, where the main character, Margaret (Mariann Mayberry in a riveting portrayal) is fired by her young boss, Stevie (Will Allan).
That alley looks so real that it seems as if scenic designer Walt Spangler simply ripped down the wall behind Steppenwolf. The sets — which change seamlessly — keep hitting all the right notes, from Margaret’s rundown kitchen with its harvest gold appliances, to a church social hall/bingo parlor, to a sophisticated home in upscale Chestnut Hill.
The props (Emily Guthrie is the props assistant) are just right, too. Before we see them, we hear about the kitschy rabbits crafted by Dottie (Molly Regan in an affecting performance): “I hate to break it to you, Dottie, but anything with googly eyes is crap,” says the alternatingly snarky and sentimental Jean (Lusia Strus is dynamite in the role). When those rabbits finally appear onstage, it’s as if another character has entered, looking just as we pictured.
Costume designs by Nan Cibula-Jenkins subtly reinforce the characterizations. Hoodies may seem like obvious choices, but they ring true. We meet Margaret wearing blue jeans, but it is the fit and the precise length — just a tad too short — of her jeans that mark her socio-economic status. When she dresses up, we aren’t surprised to learn that she shops at Good Will.
Margaret preens for a job search/shakedown visit with a high school boyfriend, Mike (Keith Kupferer in a strong performance), who escaped South Boston and became a successful doctor. It is in the scene where Margaret and Mike reconnect after some 30 years that the stereotype-shifting power of Lindsay-Abaire’s script unleashes itself. Margaret, who seems almost saintly in the early scenes, reveals herself to be less likable than we thought but more complex. And Mike responds to her increasingly aggressive repartee with surprising honesty — or maybe he’s merely in self-preservation mode.
These ambiguities make for satisfying theatrical fare. Just when we think we know what will happen, we are surprised, our expectations defied — or not. Better to let the plot unfold and enjoy the ride than to know too much beforehand. Suffice it to say that Alana Arenas as Kate contributes yet another topnotch performance.
Freeman’s astute direction cultivates the nuances in Lindsay-Abaire’s script. “Good People” is a play about class and race and tough economic times, but it is foremost a play about people. And like real people, as hard as these characters may try to be good, they may not always succeed.
Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago
Though November 11, 2012
Tickets $20 – $86 with same-day, rush and student tickets available; at box office or 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org.
Photos: Michael Brosilow