It’s tempting to scoff at Alicia Sedwick when she mentions she grew up just outside Lizard Lick, North Carolina. As names of small towns go, that one sounds suspiciously satirical, not unlike Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.
But google it, and you’ll find there really is such a place. A real-estate site helpfully notes that the town of 15,000 is centered “at the crossroads of Lizard Lick Road and Highway 97.”
All in all, not the ideal place for an aspiring actress to grow up. But her childhood there did provide experiences that will inform her performance in the Ensemble Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Good People. For one thing, Sedwick grew up cognizant of what it feels like to be an outsider.
“My dad was a doctor,” she notes, “so the kids thought of me as a Yankee.”
Good People, which opens Saturday night at the renovated Victoria Hall, is set in Boston, where the term “Yankee” has a different, if equally derogatory, connotation. But it’s still very much about community solidarity and suspicion of outsiders.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s multi-award-winning play is a rarity in the modern American theater: a drama that tackles the issue of class. It asks how a few people manage to transcend the circumstances of their childhood and what, if anything, they owe to the people they left behind.
That issue is anything but theoretical to Margie (the “r” is silent, the “g” is hard), a single mother from the proud, isolated community of South Boston. Out of work and desperate, she approaches an old high school sweetheart who has become a successful doctor, moving up in the world and out of the old neighborhood.
It’s a great play for recessionary times, one in which a member of the “have-nots” approaches one of the “haves” and asks: Hey, what about us? Is it right to turn your back on the community you came from?
“I’m really curious to see how Santa Barbara is going to respond to this play,” said director Jenny Sullivan. “There are a lot of ‘haves’ in Santa Barbara.”
Sedwick learned that many years ago — in 1982, to be exact. Taking a break from college (she studied theater at Humboldt State), she spent some time living with a friend “in her parents’ house in Hope Ranch.”
“I got a job at the Wine Cask,” she recalled. “I lied and said I had experience waiting tables.”
She also auditioned for a relatively new theater company in town, the Ensemble, and was cast in two productions: Laundry and Bourbon and Of Mice and Men. “I remember being very nervous, but I loved it,” she said.
Many years later, when she was working as a New York-based actress, she did three shows at the Two River Theater in New Jersey, which was then run by Ensemble Artistic Director Jonathan Fox. When she moved back to Southern California, he invited her to audition, but her career had moved in a different direction. In recent years, she has been producing a radio program, co-producing a spoken-word series, and teaching an acting class for budding animators.
However, when the casting director sent her a Facebook message informing her about Good People, Sedwick was immediately intrigued. She had seen the play at a Geffen Playhouse production in 2012 and was knocked out by it. Sullivan had the exact same experience.
“It just blew me away,” the director recalled. “It is so specific. You know [David Lindsay-Abaire] comes from that place. Each and every character is so rich and so real. And the plotting is so intricate.”
Sullivan and Sedwick did not know each other before this experience (although, after comparing notes, they realized that they had been at the same wedding 10 years earlier). When asked why she cast the veteran actress in this coveted role (performed by Frances McDormand on Broadway and Jane Kaczmarek in Los Angeles), Sullivan immediately answered, “She made me laugh.”
“It’s a dark story,” she noted, “but there’s a lot of humor in this play.”
For these characters, “their sense of humor is a defense mechanism and a survival technique,” Sedwick added.
As part of their quest for authenticity, the cast members are exchanging YouTube videos of scenes shot in South Boston. They’re also honing their working-class Boston accents.
“At first [the accent] felt like a caricature,” Sedwick recalled. “I thought, ‘Dial it back!’ But the dialect coach is having me say things like ‘Dollah St-oah’ for ‘Dollar Store.’”
Good People opens on Thursday, February 6, at 8 p.m. at the New Vic (33 W. Victoria St.) with performances though Sunday, February 23. For tickets and information, call (805) 965-5400 or visit ensembletheatre.com.