Chicago Theater Review: SOUPS, STEWS, AND CASSEROLES: 1976 (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 1, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

A RECIPE FOR BETTER THEATER

It’s no accident that this bold play, the latest offering from Northwestern University professor Rebecca Gilman, happens in Wisconsin circa 1976. The story of a corporate takeover of a small-town cheese company, Gilman’s civic-minded drama doesn’t play out in the present. But the 40-year-old anger and displacement it depicts is thrust into today—specifically at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s concerted attacks on collective bargaining and the first-amendment rights of unions to organize workers.

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A persuasive if not powerful Chicago premiere at Goodman Theatre, Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 (named after a cookbook that the author discovered at a garage sale) charts a seminal American loss of innocence. An old-school, community-based business in the Badger State is endangered by gut-and-sell raiders and profiteers from big bad Chicago. (Yes, sometimes exaggeration is impossible.) We see the toll it takes on the town in the creeping corruption of the Durst family, locals with deep roots, long memories and stewing rage. Pioneer stock and the microcosm of a beleaguered burg, they soon learn the peril of defying that nasty admonition, “You can’t fight progress.”

Employing six well-defined and representative characters, Gilman puts us in the dairy-farming village of Reynolds during the Bicentennial and Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign. (The actual locale is Green County in southwestern Wisconsin.) In 135 taut and telling minutes we feel the immediate, devastating effects of the purchase of the Farmhead Cheese Factory by a Chicago-based conglomerate. The takeover honchos quickly proceed to streamline and downsize operations, impose a more “efficient” one-task-per-drudge assembly line, and, worst of all, void the union contracts that offered job protection, bathroom breaks, paid vacations, health insurance, and pensions.

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Caught in the midst of ugly change is Kim Durst, a floor-room manager who slowly advances to middle management where he now gets to discipline or fire his fellow citizens. Stuck with a mortgage and already angry at having lost the family farm to his undeserving brother, Kim takes, a bit too readily, to bossing folks around. Abruptly placed in prominence, Kim finds himself condemned as a “sell-out” and working-class traitor by a former family chum: Union president Kyle is a fiery agitator who won’t back down.

Trying to hold family (and Reynolds) together, Kim’s wife Kat is a gossip columnist for the local newspaper, a natural conciliator now faced with an intractable squabble. Claiming Kat’s attention and sympathy, teenage daughter Kelly is an idealist: She’s currently caught up in the furor over the resumption of capital punishment triggered by the imminent firing squad execution of Gary Gilmore. Kat’s other confidante is Kyle’s aunt JoAnne, a Reynolds icon and surrogate mother who helps Kat assemble recipes in a cookbook they annually sell on “Cheese Day” to aid local charities.

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Finally, there’s the inevitable outsider: The neighbor from hell, Michigan-raised Elaine Marcus is the wife of the new manager and a believer in “assertiveness” training against “passive-aggressive” opponents. (She also takes an unhealthy fancy to attractive Kim.) Dismissing JoAnne’s crusty resentment, Elaine becomes a rival for Kat’s affections and, worse, charms the housewife into an uncharacteristic snobbery toward the town’s insular “Homemakers” club. Just as newly promoted Kim has succumbed to the lure of unearned bonuses and unaccountable power, Kat estranges herself from the downhome, bedrock values she grew up with. Spoiled by the transient attention of a North Shore socialite, Kat now disdains lifelong friends as unsophisticated cheeseheads.

Though the first act is somewhat scattershot in its character development, a very purposeful second act drives home Reynold’s mounting fears and uncertainty. Gilman makes us care, artfully raising the stakes in this struggle for the Durst clan’s tested integrity. Besieged and confused, Kim must decide if “it’s better to be kind than right” and whether profits matter more than people. Happily, a nuanced play that seemed maddeningly balanced in its portrayal of a hostile buy-out and kneejerk layoffs finally and decisively takes sides. You may not like the outcome but Soups, Stews and Casseroles doesn’t sell- or cop out.

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Building on Gilman’s convincing conversations, Robert Falls’ staging, accurately displayed in Kevin Depinet’s detailed 70s kitchen parlor, offers six heartland performances. Cliff Chamberlain never stints at conveying Kim’s aching ambivalence as he surrenders to the siren song of success. Cora Vander Broeck’s Kat is salt-of-the-earth solid as a wife, mother and friend undermined by the wrong passion for change. As if escaping from a Clifford Odets’s rouser, Ty Olwin incarnates the union’s threatened solidarity and work ethic as Kyle. As JoAnne, Chicago veteran Ann Whitney is sterling in her tough-loving loyalties and deadpan delivery. Lindsay Stock seems achingly actual as Kelly, a daughter who grows up too fast to feel right. Finally, in the somewhat clichéd role of a lonely homewrecker who seduces and abandons, Angela Reed’s tony Elaine personifies capitalist arrogance on the make.

Initially, Gilman’s surprisingly down-to-earth drama may seem schematic and formulaic as it triggers predictable conflicts in a far from paradisiacal small town. But by play’s end it puts a moral dilemma centerstage: Forced to commit, an audience must pick who–and what–they stand for. No small breakthrough, Goodman Theatre delivers a drama that’s more intent on challenging than pleasing its patrons.

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photos by Liz Lauren

Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976
Goodman Theatre
Owen Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on June 19, 2016
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman

for more theater info, visit Theatre in Chicago

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