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Forward Theater Company stages a debate about poverty in Good People
A laid-off cashier faces her critics in <i>Good People</i>.
A laid-off cashier faces her critics in Good People.
Credit:Zane Williams

King of the Hill makes one wonder how the Great Recession is shaping the artists of tomorrow. Though this crisis has been measured in home foreclosures rather than bank failures, it shares some of the Great Depression's hallmarks. Margie, the protagonist in Forward Theater Company's Good People (April 4-21 at Overture Center's Playhouse), exemplifies some of these points of convergence.

When Margie loses her job as a dollar-store cashier, the shock and blame are almost as painful as the fears for her well-being - and that of her disabled daughter. Though poor, desperate people are part of her community's fabric, becoming one of them is a terrifying prospect. On the flip side, pluck turns certain down-and-out neighbors into folk heroes. Margie describes one such person to her supervisor at the start of the play:

"She's walking up and down the aisles, slipping things in the pockets - potatoes, and cans of cranberry sauce, cookies, because you guys gotta eat, right?... And then the turkey falls out of her coat. It hits the floor right between her legs. A turkey. Boom. And I swear to God, she didn't miss a beat. She looks up, real mad, and yells, 'Who threw that bird at me?!'"

It turns out this character is her supervisor's mother, a woman Margie regards as both "a good lady" and "a funny sonofabitch."

Artistic director Jennifer Uphoff Gray says this Tony-nominated play is one of the most exciting, challenging works Forward has staged.

"It's the kind of play we were made to do," she says. "When we started Forward, we were thinking of the WPA and the need for artists to contribute to the community both economically and culturally, even during tough times. It's an issue we've talked about a lot artistically, so it's not a coincidence that we fell in love with this play, which takes on New Deal issues in a completely contemporary context."

Good People's take on poverty is particularly instructive, according to Gray.

"It's about people who do stupid, desperate things but are still fundamentally good," she explains. "The storyline is handled with such humor and empathy, and it shows people from different walks of life and what their perspectives on poverty are."

She also praises playwright David Lindsay-Abaire for crafting fully formed personalities with lots of realistic problems but few soapboxes. In other words, don't expect to see walking stereotypes in this production. Instead, poverty gets a human face - something that's sorely needed in Madison.

"We're surrounded by Margies. It's easy to feel like they're responsible for the factors over which they have no control. This play does a remarkable job at looking at that assumption," she says.

Gray points to an "almost-aria" Margie delivers when an old friend implies that her plight stems from poor decision-making. She walks him through the trajectory of her life, pointing out that conscious choices didn't lead to her situation. A lack of luck and resources plays a much bigger role. So do systemic forces, from discrimination by health insurers to prices at daycare centers.

"It makes you realize how much of success is about having someone give you a leg up at the right moment," Gray says, adding that many Forward artists were "on the verge of tears" when reading the script.

It's no secret that actors, writers, painters and musicians often live on the poverty line. But the effects of this predicament - economic, psychological and otherwise - are rarely discussed in a public forum. Gray hopes talkback sessions after the performances will help change this.

Debating the issue isn't the only goal, though. Gray and company would also like to reduce poverty's stigma. That's why Forward plans to roll out a pastime both Margie and her Depression-era forebears enjoyed: bingo, in the form of a fundraiser for the Goodman Community Center's job-training program (April 26, 6-10 p.m.).

Says Gray: "Bingo's about entertainment, but it's also about luck and hope that things will be better in the future. That's something all of us could use."

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