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“Good People” in La Mirada – 21st Century Class Consciousness

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in "Good People" in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in “Good People” in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Long ago, my sociology professor made much of the fact that there were not specific social classes in the United States: that, like the Horatio Alger model, everyone had the ability to rise. This has become more and more debatable in the last half-century, as social forces clamp some into specific spaces in our national culture , not all of which are related to race.

In illustration, find the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “Good People,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s examination of class and culture in Boston, now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Lindsay-Abaire, whose powerful examination of the nature and collateral damage of grief, “Rabbit Hole,” was a signature piece of last year’s MRE season, looks at the issue through the lens of a “Southie” – someone from traditionally blue collar, Irish, South Boston.

Margaret is a middle aged Southie at the end of her rope. Having just lost her most recent job, in part due to her struggles to care for her disabled adult daughter, she’s desperate for work. Her lifelong friend bumps into an old classmate, briefly Margaret’s love interest, who escaped the life of South Boston for a career as a doctor. Margaret decides to push him to lift her up, at least as far as giving her a job.

Has he become a “lace curtain Southie,” thinking he’s better than everyone else? Is her anger toward him justified? Is the lifestyle he now lives the dream Margaret thinks it is, or does class create struggle even there? What, in the end, are these characters’ actual truths, as the two possible endings for a Southie kid come face to face.

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol creates a distinctly edgy, biting quality to the desperate Margaret: quick to assume, aggressively judgemental and painfully honest, yet gifted by a sense of community on her home turf. As her buddy Jean, Gigi Bermingham offers up the same cynically humorous view of their individual desperations, while Anne Gee Byrd makes Margaret’s upstairs landlady obstinately practical, but caring in her own distant way.

As Mike, the doctor, Martin Kildare gives subtlety to the divide of sensitivities inside a successful man with Southie roots. Sophina Brown, as his wife, offers the third element: a woman raised with greater sophistication, whose struggles to connect her husband’s present image with his past may loom as large as Margaret’s.

Though not touted as a comedy, “Good People” has many laughs in the midst of these tensions. The title of this play comes from the phrase, “He (or she) is good people” – an important valuation in South Boston.The rest of the play is, in the end, an examination of what it means to be, or not be, good people – a goodness which resides in there somewhere, apparently particularly among people in extremity.

Though not as compelling as “Rabbit Hole,” as a play, the performances make the thing worth watching, as does director Jeff Maynard’s handling of this episodic tale. He smooths the transitions from place to place, and makes great use of Stephen Gifford’s representational set pieces. Adriana Lambarri’s costumes create instant class separations, and underscore the central themes of the piece.

For us west-coasters, who may have only heard of Southies in relation to the more local arrest of Whitey Bulger, it’s a look at a part of the country where the turf wars are more distinct, and more ingrained in social history. It’s also a good examination of why, at least in certain parts of the country, my sociology professor was probably wrong.

What: “Good People” When: Through October 12, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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Oscar Wilde on Truth vs Prudence: “An Ideal Husband” in Sierra Madre

The evil Mrs. Cheveley (Ann Noble) meets her match in Lord Goring (Michael Matthys) in "An Ideal Husband" at Sierra Madre Playhouse  [photo: Geoffrey Wade]

The evil Mrs. Cheveley (Ann Noble) meets her match in Lord Goring (Michael Matthys) in “An Ideal Husband” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Geoffrey Wade]

Oscar Wilde is most widely remembered for his social commentary, particularly in the form of two satiric comedies, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and the somewhat less produced “An Ideal Husband.” Both poke fun at the pomposity and formality of the lives of the Victorian English elite, involve some form of silly situation based on that formality, and come to a conclusion which combines the logical with the remarkable.

Which makes it a great pleasure to see the latter, “An Ideal Husband,” has come to the Sierra Madre Playhouse. There, a fine cast – once they get going – create all the understated, mildly poignant, delightful commentary one expects from a Wilde play. More delightfully, its essential conundrum – the ridiculousness of expecting any human being to be perfect – is as true for our time as it was for Wilde’s, particularly given the play’s political setting.

The tale concerns Sir Robert Chiltern (Jonathon Lamer), a man whose life in politics has brought wealth, prominence, and a reputation for meticulous honesty. It has also brought a wife he loves dearly (Gaby Santinelli), whose love for him, though profound, is based heavily upon her understanding of him as the model man and ideal husband. Then the mysterious Mrs. Cheveley (Ann Noble) arrives from the Continent, bearing a secret of Chiltern’s past and an extortive proposition. Will Chiltern cave in to keep a political indiscretion silent, and preserve his wife’s love, or will he defeat Mrs. Cheveley at the cost of his reputation? The plot thickens.

Under the direction of Gigi Bermingham, the piece has the proper formal feel, and the proper human undertones. Though a wordy and somewhat static first act doesn’t quite overcome potential dullness of exposition, the second half soars – funny, recognizable, engaging and in the end charmingly silly. One wonders how much of that ponderous beginning came from opening night jitters, and how much from directorial lack of action to counteract the preponderance of words. In any case, the play proves delightful, if folks stick it out to the second act.

Certainly, the cast looks and feels appropriate for this Victorian puzzle. Lamer balances passion, position and puzzle well as the embattled Sir Robert. Santinelli makes a warm and motherly wife to him, and it is fun to watch her move past her edges toward a more natural affection. Noble’s icy charm brings a real edge to the villainous Mrs. Cheveley. Some of the best of the play comes from her interactions with Michael Matthys’ Lord Goring, Chiltern’s supposedly bon vivant buddy who proves his eventual rescuer.

Ata Farhadi and Albert Garnica make much of the wise servants of the two households involved. Lizzie Zerebko embodies the determined naiveté of the Victorian debutante, while John Combs and Alexandra Napier give humanity and class consciousness a spin as two of the Chiltern’s upper crust friends.

Kudos must go to Cesar Retana-Holguin for a period-appropriate and facile set. Naila Alladin Sanders has come up with evocatively period-based clothing. Indeed, the technical aspects show a polish which places the piece effortlessly in time.

“An Ideal Husband” has an ironic edge for the modern playgoer. This piece with its discussion of the importance or lack of importance of secrets, and its argument for truth even in the face of public shame, was a hit in London just as Wilde’s own life was unraveling. His own passions were about to land him in jail, as the secret of his homosexuality hit the courtroom. If only his own story could have had a charmingly concocted an ending.

What: “An Ideal Husband” When: Through February 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, as well as 7 p.m. Sunday, February 9, and 8 p.m. Thursdays February 13 and 20 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors and students, $15 children under 12 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

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