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Sunday, April 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 53.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
Arts

THEATER

Forward Theater's Good People addresses class-based privilege with vivid characters and laugh-out-loud humor

Margie (Laura Gordon, right) blows off steam at the bingo hall.
Credit:Zane Williams
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When it comes to poverty, Americans seem to have a particular obsession with luck versus choice. We need to parse out exactly how much of a person's misfortune is beyond his control, and how much is his fault. And what is the point of this strange and impossible calculus anyway? Perhaps it's to reassure those of us who are doing okay that our material comfort is solely a result of our hard work, with no chance involved.

David Lindsay-Abaire's 2011 play, Good People, being staged by Forward Theater Company in Overture Center's Playhouse through April 21, mines this moral territory through the struggles of Margie, a middle-aged single mother of an adult daughter with special needs. A lifelong resident of Southie (a rough, mainly Irish-American neighborhood in South Boston), Margie's recently been sacked from her job at the dollar store. Proud and tenacious, she's desperate to find a new job so she can make rent and keep her tenuous life afloat.

While this setup might sound dismal and didactic, the play is anything but. In fact, out of a strong fourth season, Good People is the high point, with vivid characters, laugh-out-loud moments and surprising twists. Pulitzer Prize winner Lindsay-Abaire, a Southie kid himself, has a knack for realistic dialogue and complex characters that are not always sympathetic. Pair this well-crafted script with a terrific cast directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, and you've got one of the best nights of local theater in recent memory.

Much of the credit here must go to Laura Gordon, a Milwaukee-based actor-director who has helmed productions at American Players Theatre and directed Forward's excellent 2011 production of Going to St. Ives. As Margie, Gordon is exceptional: I found myself rooting for Margie but also shocked at some of her actions. And while many plays sag post-intermission, Good People heats up with mesmerizing, combative conversations between Margie and Mike (Richard Ganoung), Margie's onetime boyfriend from many years ago.

Mike has managed to escape Southie; he's now a reproductive endocrinologist with a home in a tony neighborhood and a young, highly educated wife. It's to the play's -- and Ganoung's -- credit that Mike is as fully fleshed-out and rich a character as Margie. His Southie accent gone (presumably by careful eradication), his upbringing romanticized and sanitized in the anecdotes he's told his wife, Mike has enjoyed the fruits of social mobility, but at a cost to his identity.

Keith Pitts' attractive, hardworking set is another high point here, transporting us to Margie's drab apartment, the bingo hall where she blows off steam with friends, Mike's office and his Pottery Barn-esque home, and the dirty streets of Boston. Tellingly, we never see one location completely by itself; there are always bit of others visible to remind us that these different Bostons co-exist, whether we are conscious of them or not.

Good People is just what good theater should be: meaty and thought-provoking but never stiff or preachy. It's amazingly deft at handling questions of class, race and privilege, but always through the lens of characters we want to spend time with and stories we want to hear.

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