Stage Door: Good People

03/06/2011 08:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Good People is a sensitive exploration of class and memory. Set in South Boston, David Lindsay-Abaire's play captures the claustrophobic nature of working-class poverty with humor and quiet pathos. "Southies" like Margie (a perfect Frances McDormand) scrape by, trapped by circumstance and finite opportunity. This isn't an America of better tomorrows; this is daily despair.

Jean (Becky Ann Baker), her caustic crony, and Dottie (Estelle Parsons), her wily landlady, share her hardscrabble existence. They live paycheck to paycheck; bingo is their big thrill. Given Abaire's ear for exasperation, he finds comedy in simple exchanges. But the laughter is never far from heartache.

Now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Good People explores the difficulties of class, the limits of choice and how "luck" is transformative.

Margie has just lost her job at the Dollar Store; she doesn't want charity, she wants employment. A single mother of a grown, mentally handicapped daughter, she's tough but desperate. So when Jean urges her to ask Mike, an old friend, for work, Margie tracks him down.

Mike (Tate Donovan) grew up in the projects, but worked hard and made good, or what he calls "good choices." A doctor with a younger, successful African-American wife (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and daughter, he's uncomfortable with Margie, who chides him for being "lace curtain Irish," her jibe at the class war.

Thanks to a strong script and McDormand's candor, Margie is a fully realized human being: well-intentioned and manipulative, caring and self-righteous. She's complicated and, unlike Mike, doesn't have the luxury of biographical amnesia. Mike is uncomfortable recalling his Southie past; she wears it as a sign of martyrdom. Their exchanges, alongside his suave wife, are electric -- and full of surprises.

Daniel Sullivan, who clearly delineates nuances of class and character, expertly directs an excellent cast. McDormand, badly miscast in The Country Wife in 2008, is extraordinary as Margie. She imbues her performance with absolute credibility, capable of speaking volumes with a grumble or a shrug. John Lee Beatty's set -- from Margie's shabby kitchen to Mike's beautifully apportioned living room -- grounds the production. Good People, an uneasy remembrance of things past, is a quiet, understated triumph. It's a potent reminder that goodness, like identity, is elastic.