ADVERTISEMENT

“Good People.” Great play.

Maybe one of the greatest about our current America. “Good People” delves into the emotional epicenter of struggling poor Americans, people for whom work and shelter are as available as the next paycheck. These aren’t your panhandler caricatures or disenfranchised common criminals, despite what misconceptions about lower-paid adults may have you believe. These are people trying to raise their families in their small, humble hometown enclaves, where churches and taverns earn equal donations from the people who helped build them.

These people do what’s right, support their family, watch each other’s kids, help each other find the next imaginary minimum-wage job, and somehow do it all without succumbing to the oppressive world that handed them this platter of opulence. These are good people. They’re not the ones who “deserve it,” a passive-aggressive description still used to describe “these people.”

It’s a handful to cover in one play, but David Lindsay-Abaire takes a huge bite out of something that we don’t see on the contemporary American stage too often. Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts” feels like a close cousin, but even that’s not quite right. Television’s “Roseanne,” which can be heard from an offstage TV in one household scene, is more to the point.

The Kavinoky’s production of this 2011 comedy is an astute serving of Boston-set world, one where blue collars manage, in lieu of every imaginable contradiction, to survive daily life. Our local lens on this setting – Beantown’s Southie neighborhood – is probably not far removed from South Buffalo’s Seneca Street, or Kaisertown’s Clinton Street; a trip to Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville would reveal similar textures. These are generalizations, but not so radical if being honest.

Bob Waterhouse directs a fantastic cast to explore this familiar world. He gives his actors enough liberating room to be their most informal, yet piercingly angry when provoked. That necessary tension lies just beneath the surface of our central characters, which Waterhouse seems to have tamed to a T. Pacing and precision make this production sing.

Eileen Dugan is Margie, a woman with excuses for days, some seem legitimate – her grown daughter, born premature, requires specific kinds of attentive care – and some are signs of her own debilitations. She’s hard to blame but hard to coddle, too. For her, being good takes a backseat to being right.

Dugan sinks herself into this role with open arms. Its not a role we often seen from this fierce actress who can chew scenery with the best of them. Yes, here is another strong-willed woman who says what she wants. But Dugan plays to Margie’s vulnerabilities much more visibly than we might be used to seeing. She layers hypocrisy of self-righteousness and the numbness of pain with wonderful mystery, as if she hasn’t figured out that they’re exactly related.

Lisa Ludwig and Anne Gayley are Margie’s friends, Jean and Dottie, respectively, whose unconditional support comes with much tough love. They’re good for her; too good, perhaps. Ludwig is a fantastic supporting player, with zingers and attitude galore. And Gayley, whose demure exterior is still the best rouse in town, serves salty matriarchy like no one can. Her swearing is worth the ticket.

So is David King’s remarkable rotating set. His ability to swing five large locations around a turntable with effortlessness is impossible to understand but easy to marvel at. This is what a well-oiled machine – be it a set design or comfortable life – looks like. It’s smart, effective, clean and simple.

Similarly dependable, Peter Palmisano gives a riveting performance as Mike, a standup guy with dark secrets. There’s much to explore behind his approachable facade. April A. Jones is whip smart as Mike’s guarded wife, Kate. That she, a university professor from Georgetown, now living in Boston’s exclusive Chestnut Hill, can relate so graciously with jeans-and-sneakers Margie, is made believable by Jones’ sense of ease. Geoff Pictor, a younger actor who has yet to give it less than all he’s got, adds just enough depth to a smaller, serviceable role. Wonderfully focused work here, yet again.

None of these performances is small. None is weak. And this play isn’t so precious to get away with that. Fortunately, this production validates our pursuit for something better than fair, difficult as it is to get there. Good people can do that.

theater review

4 stars

What: “Good People”

When: Through March 30

Where: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.

Cost: $39.

Info: 829-7668, www.kavinokytheatre.com