Good People showcases terrific performances

Petronella Ytsma

"You're like someone on a TV show," down-on-her-luck Margie tells Mike at their first meeting in decades, early on in David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People.

The line is meant to underscore the differences 30 years of life have wrought in the former high school friends, but it takes on an extra dimension in Park Square Theatre's current production. Mike is played by James Denton, who was someone on a TV show earlier in his career, when he spent several seasons on Desperate Housewives.

Denton puts in a strong performance here, showcasing the discomfort of a man who has put the reality of his hardscrabble upbringing far behind him. The core of the piece, however, is Virginia Burke as Margie. Tough, tender, opinionated, and profane, Margie is three-dimensional, full of the flaws that make for good drama. Burke crafts a nuanced and compelling character.

Margie and Mike grew up in rough South Boston. While Mike was able to escape via college and a medical career, Margie has remained in the neighborhood. She moves from dead-end job to dead-end job, lives paycheck to meager paycheck, and takes care of her developmentally disabled adult daughter, whose birth caused Margie to drop out of high school.

After losing her job at the local dollar store, Margie looks up Mike for the first time in decades, and their uncomfortable reunion makes up the meat of the play. When they're together, their shared history forces truths to the surface, as becomes clear in a long, uncomfortable, and often very funny scene in the second act. Mike invites Margie to his birthday party, hosted at his upscale Beacon Hill home, but later calls to cancel. Thinking Mike is brushing her off, Margie heads out anyway — and discovers the party actually is off. With only Mike and his younger wife, Kate, for company, an awkward gathering plays out.

We can see flaws in both of the main characters. Mike obviously has the comfort of success, but he feels uneasy in his own skin. It's as if he is worried someone will swoop in, call him a liar, and take him back to the projects.

Margie gets our sympathy, but there are flaws in her own narrative. The story she spins — of tough luck and troubles writ large through the years — holds as much water as Mike's tale of escaping the streets by his own guile. In these cracks Burke finds her character, and she vacillates from warmth to anger to a tense brittleness in the face of Mike's considerable comfort.

As Kate, Hope Cerventes is at first intrigued by the meeting between old friends, then horrified, and finally exasperated. One could imagine that the upcoming marriage counseling session between Kate and Mike will be particularly tense.

The cast is rounded out by a trio of characters from the neighborhood: landlady Jean (Angela Timberman), friend Dottie (Jane Hamill), and Margie's young dollar-store boss Stevie (Sam Pearson). They add considerable texture in their few scenes.

Director Joel Sass builds up each scene by focusing the action on the characters and the way they talk — a credit to the work of dialect coach Lucinda Holshue. Sass's well-designed set plays off the differences between the rougher spaces of South Boston and Mike's upper-class milieu. All of these elements combine for a tense, funny, and thought-provoking piece of theater.

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