ST. PETERSBURG — A galvanizing moment in Good People, a drama about a working class mother trying to survive, comes late in the play.
The genteel wife of a former boyfriend stares at Margie, of Boston's Southie district, and levels the ultimate accusation: "You're not a nice person."
The taut story line spends two quick hours unraveling euphemisms such as "nice," the difference between nice and good, and who embodies either trait. American Stage Theatre Company has opened the season, the first selected by producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte, with a grounded, coherent production that is both thought provoking and a pleasure to watch.
The first play by Pulitzer-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire about his native Boston, Good People examines the gap between wealth and want, between Southie and the affluent Chestnut Hill suburb a few miles away, where Kate accuses Margie of not being nice.
This show, also directed by Gularte, makes sure to emphasize the key moments and metaphors. A set by Frank Chavez rotates on a dime, contrasting an upscale and subdued living room with a cramped Southie kitchen like opposite sides of tossed coin. Margie and two friends, the straightforward Jean and Dottie, her brusque landlord, never miss a session at the church bingo hall, the neighborhood's version of the stock market. Significant words and phrases hang in the air just long enough to let them sink in.
The story opens with Margie being fired from her dollar store cashier's job for chronic tardiness, which she inevitably ties to her adult disabled daughter. Her bruising biography, which seems to worsen as the play moves forward, could have been tough to absorb, if not for a script that sparkles with authenticity and a deft and complex portrayal by Rebecca Dines. Through hundreds of tiny articulations and inflections, Dines brings to life a character who sniffs out affectations and punctures them, whose impatience for artifice often leads to awkwardness.
The flip side of that personality and story is Mike, the endocrinologist from Southie who lives in Chestnut Hill. Thirty years earlier, Mike and Margie were "friends for a few months," long enough to conceive Margie's daughter. Until now, his possible paternity had remained an open secret. Under the heightened stress of joblessness, what does Margie do with that information? You'll have to see the play to find out.
There are several reasons why you should.
The first is that this play digs deeply, first with a power shovel and then an archaeologist's brush, unearthing fragments of the past that help explain the present. It raises questions without supplying easy answers, tackling serious subjects with a light touch and a regional flavor that disguises its universality.
Top tier performances across the board allow that play's subtleties to shine through, at times enhancing the script with further layers of interpretation. Peter Reardon portrays Mike cleanly and with a certain neatness that foreshadows more ominous elements to come. The two girlfriends, Vickie Daignault as Jean and Bonnie Agan as Dottie, are a hoot. Britt Michael Gordon turns in an appropriately understated performance as Stevie, Margie's boss.
Renata Eastlick, as Mike's wife, Kate, delivers the goods in the play's most powerful moments. But the strongest recommendation is that all of these elements, from acting to the bumper music to set design and costumes, seem like second nature, congruent elements that together make a larger point. Like its gritty central character, this production is not "nice."
But it's good. Very good.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.