Class divide on display in Good People

Virginia Burke and James Denton.
Virginia Burke and James Denton.
Photo by Petronella Ytsma
Though James Denton has been seen in millions of homes on television -- including a multi-year run on Desperate Housewives -- the actor's first love has always been the stage.

Denton's career started in advertising, but he caught the theater bug. "I quit my job and moved to Chicago. I struggled mightily, but started doing commercials and industrial training films. The whole on-camera thing came about to make some money," he says.

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So bringing his family to Minnesota was a natural move. Denton stars as a central character in Good People, opening this week at Park Square Theatre.

Good People comes from the pen of David Lindsay-Abaire, who also wrote Rabbit Hole. The current play, like much of his work, is set in South Boston, a distinct place culturally, socially, and dialect-wise, notes director Joel Sass.

"It really is about the whole thing of theater holding up a mirror to society. There is a huge difference between those who have made it and haven't; people who have money and who don't," Denton says.
"I class him in the same category as Conor McPherson. He writes incredibly authentic dialogue that is grounded in a specific time and place and class, with all of its fractured syntax and colloquialisms," Sass says. "People still living in Southie talk hard and they talk loud. There is an unsentimental inflection to their language. They can be very rough with each other one moment and gentle the next."

The plot centers on two people who dated back in high school, and have now moved to opposite ends of the economic divide. Mike moved out, went to college, and has become a successful doctor. Margie dropped out of school to take care of her daughter, and has been living on the margins of society since.

"These are characters who are grappling in a very visceral way with the uncomfortable notion of class in our supposedly classless society," Sass says. "When you see that kind of friction happening, it is simultaneously a source of humor and of deep discomfort, both for the characters and the audience watching."

"I like plays like this one where we as observers can observe the pathology. Mike has the pathology of having re-fabricated a fictional account of his rags to riches story. He loves the notion of being a Southie at heart though he would be considered a class traitor," Sass says. "Margie is both deeply sympathetic but prickly enough. Her parochial attitudes have contributed to her current disenfranchisement."

Virginia Burke, who plays Margie, had a similar reaction when reading the script.

"They sound like real people. They sound like the way we talk," she says. "I continue to learn things [about the script], and will continue until it closes. You can work on this for months, mining away on what is going on."

"She's very complex, as human beings tend to be. She's very poor, got pregnant when she was a teenager, dropped out of school, and has had sucky jobs," Burke says. "What's beautiful about the character is that she is written with such great respect. She is someone who is very flawed and human. She holds on. She picks herself up and keeps going forward."

The struggles extend far beyond Margie. "Everybody in the play is answerable to somebody higher up the food chain," Sass says. "It's ruthless in a way." 

"[The play] is extremely funny. It has this really spectacular mixture of laugh out loud abrasive humor and these really compelling social dynamics that these characters are struggling with. It has the effervescence of a comedy but the traction of a Brechtian drama," Sass says.

 "One cracked tooth or one missed payment sends them down a path that they never recover from. Today, in our economy, we see that all the time," Denton says.


Good People
Saturday through October 6
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
For tickets and information, call 651.291.7005 or visit online
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