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What Does It Take To Be ‘Good People’?

Michael Laurence, Rachael Holmes and Johanna Day in "Good People" (T. Charles Erickson)

Michael Laurence, Rachael Holmes and Johanna Day in “Good People” (T. Charles Erickson)

The Hollywood version of class in America goes something like this: Working-class people are the salt of the Earth, morally strong, caring about other people, and generous with what they have. Professional people have lost touch with their soul, chasing money and status with a self-centered greed. That this preposterous way of looking at the world is foisted on us by people making six and seven figures often goes without comment.

It seems, starting out, that David Lindsay-Abaire is on the same path as he looks back in nostalgia at his native South Boston in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Good People” (on the mainstage, through Oct. 14). Margie, through no fault of her own, is struggling to pay the rent, her adult daughter unable to do much more than watch television because of a premature birth. She’s just lost her job in Southie because her daughter forces her to be late most days, and at the suggestion of her friend she visits her old boyfriend, Mike, now a successful doctor, looking for a job. Dr. Mike has everything money can buy, including a trophy wife and a house in Chestnut Hill, but he’s lost his ability to communicate or sympathize with anyone from the old neighborhood.

While it seems at first that the “Good People” are those who stayed true to their Southie soul, it ain’t necessarily so.

Fortunately, Lindsay-Abaire is too good a playwright to leave such stereotypes standing. He says he wrote the play in part as a response to the more sophisticated manner in which British playwrights deal with class — less sentimentally, more nuanced. So while it seems at first that the “Good People” of the neighborhood are those who stayed true to their Southie soul, it ain’t necessarily so. In fact, the reference to “Good People” comes when Dr. Mike is described as “good people,” a man with a strong moral backbone and generous spirit.

Lindsay-Abaire’s feelings about what it takes to be good people, though, isn’t so simple. After all, he left the neighborhood behind for his own version of Dr. Mike’s life so he has some knowledge about striking out for the territories and not getting caught in the narrowness of neighborhoods founded on ethnicity and economics — which in itself is less true of Southie now. Circumstances breed their own morality, their own twists of fate, their own character development.

Anyway, how good a person is Margie (pronounced with a hard g)? How bad a person is the guy who fired her? Mitt Romney’s crack about the “47 percent” make such deliberations even more of the moment. Lindsay-Abaire’s script is full of surprises when it comes to answering these questions, perhaps one too many. But it’s an exceptionally well-crafted script and Margie’s second-act visit to Chestnut Hill is full of potentially explosive landmines.

Johanna Day grows stronger in each scene, though her in and out accent is off-putting at first. And that of Nick Westrate (her boss, Stevie) is just horrible. Director Kate Whoriskey, an Acton native and ART alumna, should know better, particularly when you have the pitch-perfect Karen MacDonald in the cast as Margie’s friend. And it’s not just the accent that’s perfect – her whole body language, the way she almost literally looks down her nose at people or straightens her gaudy clothes, makes Jean the most authentic person in the cast. Nancy E. Carroll as Dottie, the landlady, is a close second and Alexander Dodge’s set design makes everything feel lived in.

Ultimately it all feels authentic even if not every action or speech feels like they’re the way most people would respond. Lindsay-Abaire and Whoriskey maintain an emotional honesty and a confidently paced forward thrust that make for a kind of theater that doesn’t let anyone off easy, the characters or the audience.

Here’s the Huntington’s trailer for the play:

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