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Theatre review: Good People

Red Stitch Actors Theatre kicks off the year with the play Good People and Mary-Lou Ciampa reviews it.

Are some people inherently lucky, or do you make your own luck? The question of what determines our life’s path – and our eventual success or otherwise – is at the centre of this contemporary offering by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire of Rabbit Hole fame.

Set in a working class area of South Boston (Southie), the play touches upon social issues currently affecting millions of Americans: unemployment and health insurance. Race also weaves its way into the dialogue.

The social class of the main characters is evoked strikingly from the outset by both the language and content of the opening scene.

Losing her job as a checkout chick at the local Dollar Store due to chronic lateness, middle-aged and unskilled Margie (Andrea Swifte) knows her situation is grim, particularly in view of her role as sole carer of her disabled, adult daughter.

Each scene seems to lead to Margie asking persistently and unashamedly for a job, highlighting her desperation, as well as her unadorned nature.

Pride doesn’t impede her from virtually begging a recently returned long-lost friend, Mike – an ex-boyfriend ‘done good’ she hasn’t seen or heard from in 30 years – for any work, even a cleaning job.

It occupies her every waking moment, and every scene, which becomes tiresome and feels clumsy.

While the first act lacks momentum and has an overwhelmingly mundane feel to the interactions, after the interval things certainly pick up.

This apparent kitchen-sink drama poses confronting questions about personal values, and what it means to be the titular ‘good people’.

But the play goes further. It asks how much of our destiny can be put down to opportunities and chance, rather than the decisions we make.

Margie has to face the possibility that what she thought were unavoidable circumstances leading to her current position were actually a result of a series of choices.

The set is not as exciting a use of the notoriously tight space as any of the more recent plays at this venue (Laramie Project: 10 years later, My Romantic History, Ruben Guthrie), but you have to admire the cleverness of the rotating panels used to represent three distinct locations.

All performers were a delight, despite their characters being lightly sketched. Even the usually overbearing Dion Mills (Mike), who has toned down his characteristically quirky mannerisms, was enjoyable to watch. While Olga Makeeva stumbled occasionally with her lines – it was only their second show in the month-long season – and the staging of an act of frustration and anger was awkward and unconvincing, the accents from the cast members were well-handled.

Jane Montgomery Griffiths stood out as the brash, larger-than-life and occasionally offensive Jeanie, using mouth, face and nails to fully embody this caricature. But it is Swifte, who is in every scene, who holds the audience in the palms of her hands with her lightness of touch, flickering between victim and potential threat. It’s only in the final moments that we’re ever quite sure where she stands.

Good People runs until 3 March, at Red Stitch Actors Theatre, rear 2 Chapel St, St Kilda.

Mary-Lou Ciampa is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University, and upstart’s co-editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @zialulu.

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