Colleen Wheeler and Scott Bellis in Good People. (photo by Emily Cooper)
It’s always a treat to see Colleen Wheeler on stage, as her performances never disappoint. And she keeps the track record going in Good People at the Arts Club. However, the overall feel I came away with after the play didn’t match the level of enjoyment I had for the acting.
Wheeler plays Margaret, a feisty, mile-a-minute talker who can finagle her way into anything, except work.
Living in South Boston, a dense, lower-class neighborhood, Marg blames her situation on bad luck – growing up without the guidance of parents, not being able to go to a better school or get a better job. She fears she will end up like former classmate Cookie McDermot, an alcoholic living on the street.
As the play opens, Marg is being fired from a cashier’s job at a dollar store after coming late several times. The single mother is often late because she has to tend to a daughter who has mental health issues – a daughter for whom she gets no child support and who may or may not be the child of a former high school flame.
She commiserates about life over McCafés in bingo parlors with her friend Jeanne (Jenn Griffin), former supervisor Stevie (Ben Elliott) and landlord Dottie (Patti Allan), who is supposed to watch Marg’s daughter but often forgets to show up. One day, Jeanne mentions that she ran into Mike, an old boyfriend of Marg’s who has become a doctor, so Marg sets out to talk her way into a job.
Within minutes of walking into Mike’s office, she profanely insults his secretary and comments on her physical appearance. She insults Mike himself, saying he’s not a “Southie” anymore, that he now lives “lace curtain.” And she passive-aggressively follows up every abuse with the disclaimer, “Awww, I’m just bustin’ your balls.”
Despite all of this, her mastery at twisting Mike’s words and actually making him feel guilty for the altercations get her invited to an upcoming party. When Mike calls her later that week to cancel because his daughter is sick, Marg begins to think he doesn’t want her to attend – and goes anyway. It is in this scene where Marg, Mike and his wife, Kate, face one another that the skeletons of the past are unleashed.
It starts out as a respectful interaction, with Kate being the gracious host, despite Marg’s rough demeanor and colorful language.
“How’s the wine?” Kate politely asks.
“How the f–– should I know?” Marg retorts, almost laughing at the ridiculousness of the question.
But the discussion deteriorates, as expected, as Mike tries desperately to get Marg to leave. When details of past affairs and questions of “Who’s the baby’s father?” come up, Marg pulls out the claws and tries to tear strips off Mike, lashing out at him for having had the luck he needed to rise out of the South End, the luck to have parents who pushed him, the luck never to have to really struggle.
In much of the play, we are listening to people arguing, complaining and name-calling, which gets tedious. At one level, Marg is a likeable, even inspirational, character. Consider how often we pretend to be aficionados of art or wine or food, just to be accepted. Marg makes no apologies for not knowing how wine should taste.
But, for most of the play, Marg is insufferable. Her constant stream of talking is exhausting. She resorts to, “I’m just bustin’ your balls,” to cover up insults based on her true feelings. And she is stuck blaming everyone and everything around her for her situation. We should be provoked into asking ourselves, how much does luck actually play in success in life? The problem was, I didn’t care by the end, and I think it’s because I just disliked Marg.
However, I did like the set. Wonderfully thought out and detailed, the modular rooms rotate into, out of and around the stage, with beautiful precision. You could hear the audience’s “oohs” and “aahs” as the curtain rose on the second act.
Good People was written by David Lindsay-Abaire and is directed by Rachel Ditor. It runs until April 24 at the Stanley (artsclub.com).
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer and media trainer in Vancouver. Her consulting work can be seen at phase2coaching.com.