Review: ‘Good People’ trapped in their enclave

The Boston neighborhood called Southie is a hardscrabble part of town, and it merits a play with the same sensibility — the smart, funny “Good People,” now on the main stage of the Walnut Street Theatre.

“Good People” offers several slices of life from the rich pie that is the largely Irish-Catholic Southie neighborhood, a sort of extended family that grows up together and, as the play tells it, becomes stuck in place economically and socially.

Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the meaty “Rabbit Hole” (both the stage version and the movie) also wrote “Good People,” which played on Broadway two seasons back. “Good People” is not nearly as weighty as “Rabbit Hole,” about young parents who’ve lost their child in a bike accident, but it’s a very different sort of play.  It’s a look at the way your roots can trap you, especially when jobs are hard to find and life offers little or no way to pull yourself up by the proverbial bootstraps.

Take Margaret, for instance. She’s down on her luck, can’t hold a job, and struggles with an adult daughter who is severely mentally disabled. Margaret’s stymied by life in general and, with no money coming in, she’s desperate. So she looks up Mikey, an old Southie boyfriend who’s managed to do well. He’s now a doctor and maybe he has a job for her. She visits his office unannounced, is overtaken by its amenities, and enters into an approach-avoidance conflict: She wants his life and essentially hates him for it.

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But gee, I’m making “Good People” sound as though it’s an academic case study, and it’s anything but that. Lindsay-Abaire tells his story with great humor and peoples it with characters who are hardy and honest with themselves. The Walnut’s producing artistic director Bernard Havard stages “Good People” to heighten the pleasant tension between the characters and within the swiftly moving plot.  His leading lady — Julie Czarnecki, a veteran of many Walnut shows — has the earthiness of the Southie neighborhood in her manner and in her face. In Czarnecki’s delivery of Margaret, even the casual general bigotry that people could see as setting Southie apart from other Boston neighborhoods (and also keeping it confined) comes off as a sort of light-hearted joke on herself.

Dan Olmstead is a bemused and befuddled Mikey, the guy who escaped Southie to come to the University of Pennsylvania and then become a doctor. He and his upscale wife, played gamely by Danielle Herbert — also with an intriguing hint of self-mockery — are joined by a supporting cast of Sharon Alexander, Jered McLenigan and a particularly pointed Denise Whelan, whose inflections could draw laughs by themselves. They could’ve used a dialect coach — their Boston accents are all over place, and that place may or may not be Boston. But that’s not a killer in an otherwise solid production.

And check out Robert Klingelhoefer’s superb sets that rotate on a turntable stage and represent two very different Boston neighborhoods — and two equally different lifestyles and outlooks. In a full turn of that stage, you get the gist of “Good People,” a play about moving out, moving up, moving on — and also, staying behind.

GOOD PEOPLE is at the Walnut Street Theatre main stage, Walnut and 9th streets, through April 28. Tickets: $10-$85. or 215-574-3550.

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