Margaret is desperate. In the opening scene of “Good People,” the new play at Salt Lake Acting Company, Margaret loses her job at the Dollar Store. She’s motivated to call an old boyfriend, Mikey Dillon, after she learns he’s a volunteer on the board of the local Boys and Girls Club. She’s the single mother of an adult disabled daughter who has never left their rough South Boston neighborhood, while Mike is now a doctor — surely he or his rich friends must have some kind of job for her to do.
As played by actor Nell Gwynn, Margaret’s vulnerability is expressed in the awkward way she turns her head in discomfort when she’s embarrassed or in the way her long fingers flutter when she’s explaining away all the reasons she is late to work. Thanks to Gwynn’s awkward movements and her just-right delivery of a South Boston accent (under the direction of dialect coach Adrianne Moore), the actor embodies Margaret with authenticity.
The character’s desperation ratchets up the tension in the second act of the play, so much so that on opening night the SLAC audience seemed to need a collective escape valve. It was delivered, gift-wrapped, in the perfect delivery of a throwaway line that says everything about how masterfully Gwynn has sparked our empathy for her character.
A misunderstanding causes Margaret to drop by Mike’s Chestnut Hill home for his birthday party, which has been canceled. At first, Mike’s young, beautiful black wife, Kate (Michelle Patrick) mistakes Margaret for part of the catering crew, but then invites her in to enjoy the fancy cheese and wine that had been intended for party guests. That’s the set-up to the line that sparked the audience’s knowing laughter.
When Mike (Robert Scott Smith) asks Margaret how she likes the wine, Margaret says the only honest thing: How would she know if the wine is any good, dropping a well-placed f-bomb along the way. All of us in the audience, it seemed, recognized that moment of feeling culturally gauche, when we’re so painfully aware that we’re out of our league.
This local production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” is well served by Gwynn’s knockout performance in the role that won Frances McDormand a Best Actress Tony Award in 2011. If there’s a flaw in this well-made play by Lindsay-Abaire, who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Rabbit Hole,” then it’s in the over-long scenes and set-ups in the first act, which makes an audience have to wait until after intermission for the drama to heat up. Rest assured, it does.
The playwright draws a sympathetic portrait of the Bingo-playing underclass by surrounding Margaret with trouble-making but loyal friends (Stephanie Howell and Dee Macaluso, who are having excellent fun). Yet Lindsay-Abaire seems much less interested in inviting our understanding for the causes of the frictions in Mike and Kate’s upper-class marriage. In this production, Smith and Patrick deliver precise line readings as Mike and his wife, Kate.
Smith excels at conveying Mike’s charm, but his well-delivered rage at Margaret is drawn from the authority of his lace-curtain Chestnut Hill address without revealing his character’s inner South Boston roots. What Patrick delivers successfully is Kate’s brittle humor; less apparent, this early in the production’s run, is the character’s life-long sense of privilege.
Under Robin Wilks-Dunn’s direction, “Good People” raises interesting questions about whether luck or hard work alone helps you to rise above your class. It’s a story worth thinking about for days after the final scene draws to a close.
R Nell Gwynn’s powerhouse performance sparks us to reconsider where we are from in this gritty, humane script.
What • Salt Lake Acting Company opens its production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People.”
When • Reviewed Friday; continues through Nov. 24; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday; 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$42 (senior/student/under 30); 801-363-7522; saltlakeactingcompany.org
Running time • Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.