We get a take on Margie at the outset of Good People, onstage at the Unicorn. The middle-aged woman cashiers at the Dollar General, where her seniority makes her the top earner at $9-plus an hour. But that's not why she's being fired. As this play begins, she and her 20-something boss, Stevie, have stepped out back, downwind from the Dumpster rather than inside an office, where he slowly breaks the news.
It's a fitting setting for Margie's hard, paycheck-to-paycheck existence. She's grinding it out in the famously insular working-class neighborhood of South Boston, where barely scraping by is the norm, not cause for pity. It's a place where a story of a pregnant friend's shoplifting attempt is retold for its humor, not its morality. We're drawn in immediately by these folks: sharp-tongued, down-to-earth, a little angry, but self-sufficient and proud.
Not too proud, though, to plead for a job. Margie (Jan Rogge) needs hers, and she tries making a deal with Stevie (Phillip Russell Newman) like she's bargaining with God. Yet this drama is no downer; it's a richly painted and often funny portrait of people distinguished by their class and culture, and defined further by their issues and imperfections.
Mark Robbins deftly directs an expert cast in this first-rate production, a collaboration with Kansas City Actors Theatre (the second this season, following December's Inspecting Carol). Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who was a Southie himself growing up, draws from his past in this work, which received a Tony nomination for Best Play of 2011.
Here, the neighborhood escapee is Mike (Scott Cordes), briefly Margie's boyfriend in high school before heading off to college (a place Margie and most, if not all, of her crowd skipped). Margie learns from friend Jean (Manon Halliburton) that Mike is now a doctor. In a whirling coffee klatch in her kitchen that includes Margie's landlady, Dottie (Kathleen Warfel), the three women hatch job-seeking and moneymaking schemes. Perhaps Margie should go to Mike's office and ask about a job.
Lindsay-Abaire has a keen ear for the changing tempo and tone of interactions and the nuances of conversation, though it's not the writing alone that draws us in. The actors' chemistry and smart timing bring these multidimensional and complicated characters to life with humor and sensitivity.
It's an awkward meet-up between unpolished, old-neighborhood Margie and "the lace-curtain Irish" Mike, as she calls him, 30 years since they last saw each other. He has a successful practice and lives in an upscale section of Boston with his young academic wife, Kate (Dianne Yvette), and their small daughter. Margie is the coarse side of an emery board to Mike's trimmed nails, but the former Southie isn't all manicure.
"How's the wine?" he asks Margie when she visits his home. "How the hell would I know?" is her lightning response, a telling reflection of their differences. (So, too, Mike's elegant office and home — set design by Jason Coale.) Before serving cheese, Kate checks whether Margie is lactose-intolerant, another foreign concept.
Through these characters and their disparate life courses, this play explores why fortunes fall as they do, without completely answering the question. What does it take to catch a break and get ahead? Wiser choices, harder work, "being a prick"? At the regular church bingo games that Margie attends with Jean and Dottie, she wins if she's lucky. And we understand, from the women's rapid-fire retorts during the bingo calls, that Margie's luck has been anything but regular.
Answers aren't meant to come easily, though, because people aren't all bad, and they're not 100-percent good, not always mean or completely nice. They just play the game as best they can, hoping to hear their numbers called out.