Dario Fo’s 1974 play “They Don’t Pay? We Won’t Pay!” combines the high energy and improvisatory tradition of Commedia dell’arte with farce, satire and touches of classic sit-com to deliver both laughs and a timely message.

As the mainstage season finale of the Portland Stage Company opens, working class Antonia is returning to her Milan apartment with sacks full of groceries. She explains to her friend Margherita that a rebellion against huge price increases broke out at the store and, in the confusion that followed, items were, at best, only partially paid for.

Comic complications ensue as the ever-resourceful Antonia devises a scheme to hide some of the groceries in a fake “baby bump” under Margherita’s clothes. Antonia’s wits are constantly tested as alternately skeptical and suspicious spouses, not to mention law enforcement officers, try to figure out what’s really going on.

Everything’s played broadly with the accents of the ostensibly Italian characters more likely to remind one of stereotypical working class New Yorkers who “tawk” about getting “hoit” at “woik.” They gesture wildly, strike awkward, goofy poses and rush around the tenement set (by Anita Stewart) and out into the aisles of the theater. Underlying all the craziness, though, is some harsh social commentary on the struggles of workers and their families in a world seemingly set against them.

Director Ron Botting has obviously given the actors freedom within the confines of Fo’s story. It paid off at Friday’s opening as all seemed to be having fun, sharing occasional winks at the audience and cracking each other up along the way.

Emma O’Donnell was outstanding as the tenacious Antonia, ever ready to spin another tale in her efforts to save her family and friends from the perils of poverty. William Zielinski, as her husband Giovanni, pairs his character’s good-natured cluelessness effectively with his growing anger as a factory worker in a time of benefit cutbacks, outsourcing and downsizing.

Kimbre Lancaster and Timothy Hassler play the married friends and co-conspirators in trying to salvage both the appropriated food and their constantly threatened dignity. Hassler and Zielinski humorously played off each other like old-style bumbling buddies while Lancaster’s behind-the-beat reactions to O’Donnell made her an effective comic foil.

Jeffrey M. Bender has a plum assignment playing several eccentric characters. His contributions moved the story along while also serving to center some of the wilder comic flights.

“People need to take charge of their own lives,” Bender’s sympathetic cop says in one reflective moment. The characters in this show, despite their sometimes unhinged ways, are forced into an ever-deepening understanding of that wisdom.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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