RMTC’s Good People flawed, but good theatre

“How’s the wine?” Mike asks. “How the f--k should I know?” is Margie’s response.
Eric Blais as Stevie and Martha Burns as Margaret in Good People. (Bruce Monk)

“How’s the wine?” Mike asks. “How the f--k should I know?” is Margie’s response.

And she says it without irritation, but simply as a statement of fact. How would she know anything about the relative goodness or badness of a glass of wine?

It’s a line that cracks the audience up. But it’s also, in many ways, what David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 play Good People is about - the divisions between people who know about wine, and care about it; and people who don’t, because they’re more worried about things like paying the rent and not dying homeless on a sidewalk.
Patricia Hunter, Martha Burns and Tracey Nepinak in Good People. Photo by Bruce Monk ( Bruce Monk)

The play centres around Margie (Martha Burns), who is not just a Bostonian, but a “Southie” - meaning she’s from the city’s working class south side.

When she loses her marginal job at a dollar store, she’s driven to desperation. And that means looking up her old flame Mike (Ari Cohen) for help.

He’s a fellow Southie who’s made good - he’s become a doctor and moved to the tony part of town. But has he really left his past behind - and is there a middle ground to be found between have-not Margie and Mike, the definite “have?”

These are the questions Lindsay-Abaire raises in a play that exposes often uncomfortable realities about being poor in North America, about how much agency we really have in our economic circumstances, and about how much we’re defined by our pasts.
Ari Cohen plays Mike, Margaret's ex-boyfriend in Good People. (Bruce Monk)

It’s a compelling and provocative play for those reasons. But the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s production doesn’t entirely capitalize on the potential of Lindsay-Abaire’s script.

The chief problem in Vikki Anderson’s staging is pacing that never quite hit its stride on opening night.

Normally, that might be nit-picking, but here, it’s a significant issue. There should be a crackle in the Bostonian rhythm of Lindsay-Abaire’s dialogue - which can turn from comedy to bleak tragedy on a dime.

But a few too many too pregnant pauses - many of which seemed to be the result of searching for lines, particularly on Burns’ part - robbed the opening night performance of much of its needed energy.

It’s a problem that will likely be corrected as the show’s run goes on - but a problem nonetheless.

Burns takes an admirably subtle approach to Margie, though. She’s a complicated character - proud, but also manipulative; observant, but sometimes socially tone-deaf; independent, but also convinced she never had any choice except to be poor.

Those contradictions often require Margie to make sharp turns, and there were a few points I would’ve liked to see some of those turns - from brash to desperate in the play’s opening scene, for example - be a bit sharper.

But she plays Margie with a grounded realism that makes her sympathetic, but not pitiable - her Margie is heartbreaking in a quiet, subtle way.

As Mike, Cohen also has to play a layered character - and does an excellent job of it, especially as Mike’s past begins to catch up with his present in the second act.

They’re backed by a great supporting cast - as Margie’s pragmatic landlady Dottie and plain-spoken friend Jean, locals Patricia Hunter and Tracey Nepinak steal scenes with great comic timing (and, like the rest of the cast, pretty spot-on Boston accents, thanks to dialect coaches Diane Pitblado and Shannon Vickers).

Audrey Dwyer, as Mike’s wife Kate, and Eric Blais as Margie’s ex-boss Stevie do fine work in rounding out the cast.

While its flaws are notable, the production is more a “have” than a “have not,” and the script is rich in provocative ideas and questions. Good People, on balance, is good theatre.

Good People runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s John Hirsch Mainstage until May 10.