Sunday, January 26, 2014

Iowa City is Blessed by Good People

By K. Michael Moore
Photos by Bob Goodfellow

(L-R) Jody Hovland, Carrie Houchins-Witt, 
Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers, Osean Perez
Iowa City —“Good” theatre has long been a crucible in which we test our ideas against themselves. It makes us think, it challenges us, forces us to examine the preconceived notions we may not want to admit are present in our lives. But theatre is also entertainment, joy, and a window into our own world. Riverside Theatre’s Good People is exactly that kind of theatre. All of that kind of theatre.

The play is set primarily in South Boston – “Southie” – a rough-and-tumble part of the city. This is not a place where stars rise, but rather where “good” people make do. They make their way. And sometimes that way is not in any way glorious. Sometimes, we don’t have choices. Or we think we don’t.

The story opens with Margaret (Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers) being fired from her job at the dollar store. From the darkly funny dialogue between Margaret and her much younger supervisor, Stevie (Osean Perez, who also designed the costumes), we learn quickly what Margaret’s life has been: a struggle from one dead end job to the next, fighting to keep food on the table and a roof over the head of her disabled, now-adult daughter. The fight is constantly made harder by bad luck and circumstances she can’t control – according to her, at least.

Margaret (or Margy, as most of the characters call her – pronounced with a hard “G”), is perpetually down-trodden, out of luck, and put-upon, blaming bad luck or bad people for the hardships she endures. She is spirited and feisty, quick with verbal barbs and jabs that Hartsgrove Mooers delivers with the accuracy of an Olympic archer.

Even though Margy’s quick wit and quick temper push the other characters too far in nearly every scene, the audience never loses sight of her tenderness or the desperation inside this character’s complex and outwardly hardening exterior. In addition, because Hartsgrove Mooers is a master of comedic timing, the opening night crowd never stopped laughing until a sudden twist or turn of phrase punched home. Hartsgrove Mooers’ Margy is pitiable, unwilling to see where her actions have consequences, and possibly more than a little racist; she is also hilarious, tender, and hopeful despite herself. And we hope right along with her.

Margy’s two friends are well cast: the Riverside’s own Jody Hovland as Dottie, Margy’s somewhat clueless and self-interested landlord, and Carrie Houchins-Witt as best friend Jean. This trio is a thrill to watch perform, simultaneously driving each other crazy, calling each other’s bluffs, and supporting each other. Their scenes in Margy’s kitchen and the Bingo Hall are a catch-all banquet of comedy, insult, and moral support, all beautifully performed to combine gut-busting humor with exposition and character development.

Hovland’s Dottie is a superbly crafted comedic foil who, if seemingly lacking in a single sympathetic bone, still shows kindness to Margy and her daughter even while sounding as though they are a burden. Houchins-Witt as Jean is tough, wittily direct, and scheming; we know she’ll have Margy’s back against all odds. It’s a difficult wire to walk as an actor: balancing the hard exterior of these characters with the human heart and love that must show through to an audience despite harsh dialogue. These three achieve this balance with aplomb, and their scenes feel unscripted, natural, and full of humor.

Another difficult reality of theatre is that a scene in which the characters are not free to move around the stage can feel very long. The play has two scenes in which the characters are confined to a table playing bingo. This could be a director’s nightmare. Rather than fearing this obstacle, director Ron Clark embraces it. The bingo scenes, almost entirely stationary, are vibrant and engaging, touching, and of course, very funny. The physical choices and postures of the actors reflect the characters’ relationships and emotions with a deftness that moves the scenes smoothly. Instead of feeling long, the scenes are, in fact, over too soon. These anchored moments nicely contrast later scenes, where the characters’ movement through the stage space provides a more explosive outward display of their emotional landscape.

(L-R) Tim Budd, Mallory Raven Ellen Backstrom, 
Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers
The play picks up even more speed when Margy approaches her old high school flame for a job. Mike (Tim Budd) is a Southie ex-pat who now has a successful medical practice and family of his own in a wealthy part of town. Budd and Hartsgrove Mooers kill these scenes, combining the awkwardness of former friends and lovers reunited with an underlying resentment and bitterness. They play off each other well, showing both the vulnerability of caring old friends and an often vicious willingness to lie and to jump on each other’s failings. Both display an understanding of their character and acting partner that is rarely seen, except in old friends like Margy and Mike or skilled actors such as these two.

We do not necessarily like either of them through these scenes, but we do understand them. Budd’s personification of Mike gives us both the proud success story of the underdog who made good and the darker tale of the self-serving opportunist. He shows us a man who chose a goal and made his way to it no matter what, rationalizes what he gave up to get it, and quietly judges others who didn’t make it.

Rounding out the cast is Mallory Raven Ellen Backstrom, who plays Mike’s wife, Kate. I hadn’t had the opportunity to see Backstrom on stage before, but I very much hope to again. She instantly shows us that all is not well in Mike’s new life, and her presence on stage is magnetic. As Kate is confronted with the realities of Mike’s younger days – his secrets, and his relationship to Margy – Backstrom effortlessly displays her inner conflict between the man she thought she knew and the shifting reality of who he is and has been. She slides neatly between Margy and Mike in their conflict, and shows us a character with perception and clarity, but also her own set of illusions.

Shelley A. Ford’s set design is brilliant, subtly displaying the thematic material in the contrast of the shoddy, uneven bricks of the Southie locales, which underpin a raised platform on which Mike’s “lace curtain” world rests. The various locations transition smoothly in scene breaks, under a well-chosen soundtrack of old pop favorites of love, loss, and broken dreams, designed by Ron Clark (how did he know those are some of my favorite songs?). David Thayer’s light design is subtle and perfectly unnoticeable in the best sense of the word – including, I was told later, a 19-minute light cue, quietly raising the intensity of the climactic scene so deftly and subconsciously that I had to be told it had happened.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s script is tight, funny, touching, and layered brilliantly, with levels of text and subtext and sub-subtext; personal, social, emotional, and psychological issues interplay constantly, making the language a delight in itself. The dialogue, rapid and often overlapping, gives us a window into the real world of the characters, their struggles, their fears, their failings. And it is gloriously funny. Truly, gloriously funny. Side-splitting, I-wish-I-wasn’t-laughing-at-that-it’s-offensive funny. But the constant and unrelenting humor intentionally hides the honest depth of this marvelous production, coming to life through excellent direction and acting choices.

At its heart, this is a play about class divide, social issues, personal choices, emotional trauma, and, ultimately, what it means to be “good people.” About the choices we all make in order to become who we wish to be, or just get by – and whether those choices benefit us or ruin us. About the truth that not making a choice is a choice in and of itself. If the script doesn’t provide us an answer, this production makes an amazing attempt to present the questions. The cast and crew at Riverside do this beautifully, leaving us considering the consequences of our own choices, about the role of luck, determination, and social class in what happens to us in our own lives... and a stitch in our sides from laughter.

As a matter of etiquette, it should be noted that the play does contain adult language, mild violence, and some racial references that might be bothersome to younger or more sensitive viewers.

Good People runs Thursdays – Sundays, January 24th through February 16th at Riverside’s Gilbert Street stage.

Tickets: Adults, $25-30; Youth/Student Rush, $15.

More information at, or 319-338-7672.

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