“Good” is great: Steppenwolf’s production exceedes expectations

There’s something special about a live performance and the connection created between actors and an audience. Through a quick two-hour journey, Steppenwolf’s season opener, “Good People,” directed by ensemble member K. Todd Freeman, brought the theater experience to the next level.

Pulitzer Prize-winner and playwright David Lindsay-Abaire takes a look at South Boston, an Irish-American working class neighborhood, in a tough economic time as many struggle to find minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet. The small, six-person cast exposes social class and racial and relationship issues through the story of Margaret Walsh.

Margaret is a single, middle-aged mom now living with a mentally challenged daughter at home. We first see her get fired from her hourly job at the dollar store – by her friend’s grown son Stevie – when she desperately needs money just to pay rent. She pleads to keep the job, even offering to take a pay cut.

Ensemble member Mariann Mayberry tackles the nuanced role of Margaret with a tough, yet lovable edge. She captures the true Boston “Southie” attitude and an emotional complexity as Margaret struggles to move forward in her life. Unlike a typical protagonist, Margaret creates an interesting dynamic; she’s pushy and impulsive, making her likable one moment and easy-to-hate in the next.

In search of work, Margaret connects with Mike (Keith Kupferer), an old friend who escaped the “Southie” trap and became a doctor. Margaret uncovers dirt from their past, stirring up conflict and challenging Mike’s achievements. Margaret ultimately deals with the consequences of choosing to hold onto the past or leave it behind.

Kupferer and Mayberry, who share a significant amount of stage time together, play off each other perfectly, but some of the action between Mike and Margaret seemed drawn-out and dry in lengthier scenes.

Alana Arenas, a DePaul Theatre School alumnus, acts with grace and self-composure (a complete foil to Margaret) as Mike’s wife. Arenas brings a softness to the tension between Mike and Margaret and helps push the story forward. Interestingly, Arenas’ understudy also graduated from DePaul’s Theatre School.

The deep story is kept light with Margaret’s friends Jean (Lusia Strus) and Dottie (Molly Regan).

Whether it is in a kitchen snacking on donuts or playing bingo, this duo provides strength and support for Margaret.

This beautiful production is brought to life through Walt Spangler’s detailed set design from a trashy, dumpster-filled ally to a spacious suburban mansion. The seamless scene changes, accompanied with original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, enhanced the production and always made me look forward to what would transform next.

Freeman’s direction brings this dense book to life, clearly pushing Mayberry, Kupferer and Arenas to make bold choices and bring out all the raw emotion in these characters. With an atypical ending, the show exposes prejudices and harsh realities that left me thinking as I got up from my seat and left the theater.

“Good People” runs through Nov. 11 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre located at 1650 N. Halstead St. Student prices and rush tickets are available. For more information, visit steppenwolf.org.