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‘Good People’ Is Great Theater

Margie Walsh seems as tough as the neighborhood she comes from: South Boston, or Southie. Pugnacious, sometimes crude, a chip on her shoulder, always ready with a “What’s it to you?” verbal challenge.

For decades, Southie has been the home of working class Irish, a neighborhood of triple-deckers and pubs on every corner and, as Margie reminds us, Whitey Bulger. In cultural terms, Southie is now Brooklyn North: the old, tough, pre-gentrification Brooklyn, not the new Brooklyn of espresso bars, baby strollers, funky furniture stores and food co-ops.

Years ago, when she was a senior in high school, Margie (pronounced with a hard “g”) went out for a few months with a guy named Mike, but hasn’t seen him since. Mike got out of Southie when he went to college and became a high-powered fertility doctor.

When Margie is fired from her job as a cashier because she’s been late one too many times, and too quick with the excuses, a friend suggests she look up Mike to see whether he might give her a job. But Mike watched Southie disappear in the rear-view mirror a long, long time ago, and has no intention of going back -- ever.

But the past rarely stays buried, as is made clear in Northern Stage’s exhilarating, stellar production of the David Lindsay-Abaire play Good People, directed by Carol Dunne and starring Catherine Doherty as Margie.

Good People is one of the best American plays I’ve seen in a long time, an agile dissection of class and race that’s smart as a whip, funny and sad in the same breath, and deeply felt without being mawkish. The writing is astute and empathetic, and Lindsay-Abaire never condescends to his characters, even when he gently mocks their pretensions, rationalizations and blind spots.

Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his play Rabbit Hole, grew up in South Boston and so his discerning observations about how class markers in the U.S. can seem as inescapable an imprint as the categories of race are honestly come by.

But even as he sets up the paradigms with which we’re all familiar he begins tearing them away at the same time. The play probes at the assumptions we have about Southie and its polar opposite, the affluent Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill, where Mike now lives with his wife Kate and their daughter, and the usual Crate and Barrel assemblage of furniture, art and bric-a-brac. Margie visits them there in the second act, and it’s here that the writing and staging have the ferocity and urgency that only live theater can deliver.

It turns out that Kate is African-American, a professor of literature who grew up in Georgetown in Washington D.C. and is a product of the best schools and colleges. It’s Kate who assumes that when Margie shows up at the door that Margie works for a catering company, and who explains to Margie what Epoisses and Wensleydale cheeses are, and the finer points of white versus red wine.

It doesn’t take long for all the assumptions about what it means to be from Southie or Georgetown to spill out into the tastefully neutral livingroom, and it’s a difficult, honest but also comical reckoning that pulls no punches.

After all, Southie is a place that, even 40 years later -- and fairly or not -- hasn’t quite lived down its virulent reaction to the 1976 desegregation order that bussed African-American students into South Boston, and shipped the largely Irish-American students out. Southie is where the racists came from, and Mike has done everything in his power to peel away every last trace of his old haunts, a transformation that Margie taunts him with.

Northern Stage’s artistic director Carol Dunne has done a stellar job of marshalling a top-notch group of actors. Catherine Doherty is affecting and completely credible as the quick-witted Margie, bristling at every perceived and real slight, calculating how she can work a situation to her advantage, raw in her desperation for work -- and respect.

As Mike, whose carefully assembled veneer of sophisticated accomplishment gradually begins to disintegrate, Christian Kohn is a study in contrast to Doherty: cool to her hot, cautious and wary where she is pushy and blunt, not entirely sympathetic but mostly a good person. That’s a thumbnail description that applies to all the characters, and to all of us watching in the audience. It’s a fine line to walk, and Kohn navigates it deftly.

Barrett Doss is very fine as Kate, caught between her distrust of what might have happened during Mike’s Southie adolescence and her own clumsy, if sincere, efforts to find common ground with a woman with whom she has nothing in common.

As Margie’s friends Dottie and Jean, Dorothy Stanley and Charis Leos, who has made numerous previous appearances with Northern Stage, come very close to stealing the show. They have the sharp, cynical wits of women long accustomed to being disappointed by life, but they’re also uninhibited and entertaining in a way that Kate and Mike, so busy keeping up appearances, will never be, or would ever strive for. Leos, in particular, is terrific as the loud-mouthed Jean, hectoring everyone who annoys her.

Wheaton Simis, who plays Steve, Margie’s boss, is appealing as a young guy who doesn’t really want to fire her, but has also heard so many of her self-justifications that he simply cannot tolerate one more.

In an era of a national conversation about whether this country is still the meritocracy it has long prided itself on being, and how to approach issues of intractable financial and educational inequality, Good People makes its points, not with a hammer but with a scalpel, cutting in deeply and precisely, and leaves you thinking about what you’ve seen long after you’ve left the theater.

Good People runs through March 23. For tickets and information call the Northern Stage Box Office at 802-296-7000 or go to northernstage.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com