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Forward’s “Good People” is Great Theater

April 6, 2013

Is success a matter of luck, the result of hard work or a combination of the two? What do we owe one another as human beings? And is it really so bad to forget your roots, at least until those roots rise up and entangle you in your past?

Laura Gordon FTC Good PeopleThose questions drive Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People,” Forward Theater Co.’s season finale that opened this weekend at The Playhouse in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. In a relatively simple narrative layered with humor and despair, Forward and its stunning cast may have uncovered the crown jewel of the troupe’s brief four-year existence.

In the play, single mother Margie (said with a hard “g” and flawlessly performed by the Milwaukee Rep’s Laura Gordon) is dismissed from her low-paying job as a dollar store clerk in South Boston (“Southie” as the rough, lower-class neighborhood is better known.) Desperate for money to support herself and her disabled daughter, she visits Mike (Richard Ganoung), a former boyfriend and now a doctor at the advice of friends Dottie (American Players Theatre’s Susan Sweeney) and Jean (Madison Rep founding member Celia A. Klehr).  All Margie wants is a job.

The pair joust verbally and Mike ends up reluctantly inviting Margie to his birthday party being thrown by his elegant African-American wife Kate (Milwaukee actor Malkia Stampley) at the couples’ stylish Chestnut Hill home. The day prior Mike calls Margie to say the party has been cancelled. Sure that she has simply been “disinvited,” Margie shows up anyway, the only guest at a party for three that takes a very nasty turn.

Despite the dour scenario, the play is rife with laughter as Margie and her friends verbally spar during several bingo games. Ganoung proves an able, if malevolent foil, but this show belongs to Gordon, Sweeney and Klehr. The working class trio banter and box in a no-holds-barred manner available only to those who have spent a long, hard life together. Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray coaxes award-winning performances from all three veteran actors throughout the two-hour show.

Dialect coach Annelise Dickinson and dialect consultant Jan Gist get credit for creating a flawless collection of Southie accents among the six-member cast, which also includes Whitney Derendinger as Margie’s former boss Stevie. Keith Pitts’ set design, which literally rises step by step from a trash-strewn alley to Margie’s small, battered kitchen to Mike and Kate’s elegant living room was as effective as the design was simple.

The characters in the play may or may not be good people, as the title asserts. But “Good People” makes for an evening of great performances and another impressive win for Forward Theater.

“Good People” runs on select dates through April 21.

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