With seemingly effortless grace and grit, Frances McDormand tackles the role of Margaret, a South Boston working-class single mother with a “severely retarded” daughter. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Margaret is desperate for employment after losing her job. Goaded on by her friend Jean (Becky Ann Baker), she visits her old flame, Mike (Tate Donovan), now a successful doctor living in a tony neighborhood, and gets invited to his birthday party. When he calls to say it’s been called off, she doesn’t believe him and resolves to go anyway.
It’s a tame first act, but Act II more than compensates. In a crucial scene at Mike’s home, the ever-shifting dynamic among him, Margaret and his elegant young wife, Kate (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is engrossing. Margaret, who has been characterized as “nice” earlier in the play, shows just how easily that label is shed when her back’s against the wall. Yet for all her questionable behavior, we sympathize, aware of her situation — which she refrains from wearing on her sleeve but can’t stop from manifesting in resentment.
Abaire’s dialogue, like his characters, is unfailingly truthful, leavened with humor. Daniel Sullivan’s direction is winningly straightforward.