The hard-luck heroine of Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” is Margaret Walsh, a lifelong resident of the projects in South Boston’s aptly named Lower End and a newly unemployed Dollar Store cashier. A high school dropout, she’s now a middle-aged single mother to a grown (unseen) daughter, whose premature birth left her “severely retarded” and requiring constant at-home care.
Struggling just to make ends meet and her job prospects grim, Margaret, by many accounts a “nice” person, may have no choice but to take desperate measures.
In artistic director Susan V. Booth’s handsome Alliance Theatre production, Margaret is portrayed by Chicago and Broadway veteran Kate Buddeke. It’s an exceedingly admirable performance in terms of its uncompromising lack of vanity. All of Margaret’s pain and suffering shows in Buddeke’s hardened, unadorned face. In her slouching posture and movements, the actress skillfully inhabits the character’s downtrodden, world-weary resignation.
To be sure, there’s nothing very “fancy” about the role. Moreover, if not most importantly, there’s an emotional depth and impassioned honesty to Buddeke’s work that genuinely earns our sympathy — capable of warming your heart in one scene, or breaking it in the next.
At its best, “Good People” rings true as a slice of working-class life. Some of its finest moments involve Margaret hanging out with a landlady, a friend and/or a (former) co-worker, shooting the breeze and telling it like it is around a kitchen table or at the community center’s weekly Bingo game — in no small part because they’re played with such relish by familiar Atlanta faces Brenda Bynum, LaLa Cochran and Andrew Benator, respectively.
But the show becomes decidedly less effective as the plot thickens. Enter Mike (a solid Thomas Vincent Kelly), one of Margaret’s old flames, who got out of the ’hood, put his shady past behind him, made a name for himself as a doctor and lives with his lovely young wife (the splendid Kristen Ariza) and their (unseen) kid in a spectacular suburban mansion. (Set designer Collette Pollard’s suitably impressive depiction of it drew audible gasps and a round of applause on opening night.)
In the contentious encounter between Margaret and Mike that occupies much of the play’s second act, they argue textbook points of class, gender and race (the wife is black). Lindsay-Abaire casts suspicion on both of them for having possible ulterior motives — his subterfuge, her “sabotage” — and yet something about the scene lacks conviction. It feels like the dramatic contrivance of a playwright rather than an organic extension of his characters.
Despite her otherwise commendable effort with the role, not even Buddeke can make you believe it. But how typical for poor Margaret that even Lindsay-Abaire might ultimately sell her a bit short.
Through Feb. 10. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays (except Feb. 3). $30-$50. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: Good.