Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976
Goodman Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's review of Prowess


Cliff Chamberlain and Ty Olwin
Photo by Liz Lauren
I love Chicago-based playwright Rebecca Gilman for writing plays about the world I live in. Not my life, so much, but my milieu and people I know, whether they be the Chicago yuppies of Dollhouse or The Crowd You're in With, the Iowa social workers of Luna Gale, or the criminals and southern white trash of The Glory of Living (OK, I'm kidding on that last one). For this, her latest play, Gilman turns to another state bordering on Illinois, setting the action in the fictional town of Reynolds, Wisconsin. As a native Wisconsinite, I know the state well enough to know she's done her homework and that Reynolds is a pseudonym for Monroe, Wisconsin—the seat of Green County just south of Madison. It's an area of strong Swiss heritage and cheese making and home to the family-owned mail-order cheese business that for many years was called The Swiss Colony (today its name is Colony Brands).

The story concerns a fictitious company the resembles The Swiss Colony—a longtime local employer that is very much a part of the community's fabric—and explores what happens when an outside, publicly held conglomerate buys the company, lays off employees, and attempts to bust the union. It must be noted that this did not happen to The Swiss Colony, which continues to be owned by its founding family, but the situation of the company in the play has happened to many other companies across the country.

At the center of Soups, Stews ... is a three-person family who has lived in Reynolds all their lives. The parents are Kim (Cliff Chamberlain) and Kat (Cora Vander Broek), both around age 35. They were high school sweethearts who conceived daughter Kelly (Lindsay Stock) and got married when they were just recently out of high school. Kelly is 17 and at the play's beginning, just a year away from entering college (at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, of course). Kim's been with the mail order cheese company since he and Kat were married. He's done every job on the assembly line and his overall knowledge of the operation wins him the favor of the plant manager brought in by the new corporate owners. When Kim is offered a management position, he sees it as a well-deserved promotion and an opportunity to improve his family's financial situation, but it soon becomes apparent he'll be asked to turn against his former co-workers (who in this small town are also his friends and neighbors) as the new owners seek to make the operation more profitable.

Though set in 1976, when hopes among the labor union members and politically progressive thinkers of Reynolds were high that a Democratic U.S. president would bring more populist thinking to the White House after eight years of Republican presidents, the themes are resonant today, what with the current candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Gilman makes these economic themes crystal clear—unions are the only hope for ensuring fair wages and good working conditions in the face of an unchecked profit motive.

What she doesn't do as well, though the blame must partly be shared with director Robert Falls and some of the cast, is create sufficiently nuanced and interesting characters to make this a story about people as well as about economic and political issues. Wife and mom Kat is a perfectly nice woman with a good sense of humor but otherwise a little bland. She doesn't make a bad choice throughout the play. Her friend and surrogate aunt JoAnne, a septuagenarian with a strong Democratic Party bent, has some of Gilman's funnier lines and could be a colorful secondary character, but the usually strong actress Ann Whitney doesn't make enough of her. There should be more fire in her belly, more acid in her comments about the GOP. Gilman also brings in Elaine (Angela Reed), the wife of the newly arrived corporate honcho who has followed her husband to this small Wisconsin town and would much rather be living in the tony Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Is she a lonely, desperate housewife or just a snob? Has she befriended Kat honestly or is she doing the bidding of her unseen husband to get info on the workers? Gilman provides a lot of hints, but Reed's performance doesn't blend them to create a character as fascinating as the script suggests. The fourth female on stage, Kim and Kat's daughter Kelly, seems a little generic as the play began, but Lindsay Stock's appealing performance grows in complexity as the story develops. The play begins with these four women taking up most of the stage time, which is maybe a mistake, as we see in the play's second act it's really Kim's story.

Kim gets his promotion, leaving his union membership behind but still trying to be as decent as he can to his former co-workers. The situation gets increasingly untenable, though, and Kim is challenged by the young union president Kyle (an effectively earnest Ty Olwin) who gradually sees a labor strike as the only way to fight back against the corporate owners. Kyle is a smallish but interesting role. We learn that Kyle was for a time in a rock band and had hopes of a music career, but has settled for this factory job in his small hometown. Though Kim is the central character, Gilman fails to make much of him. He's seen as being highly anxious about his family's economic security (fair enough) and having camaraderie and affection with co-workers (as a lot of us do), but not much beyond that. Late in the play Elaine accuses Kim of not believing in himself, not accepting the possibility of positive change in his life. That's a fascinating theme and I wish Gilman had made more of it, but she sort of just floats it and leaves it alone. Kim is more of an archetype in a diagrammatic plot than a unique, nuanced character, more a collection of male stereotypes than a real man.

All this said, Gilman is to be commended for her treatment of a significant theme—the loss of dignity and economic security of middle-class workers—and her depiction of small-town people as intelligent and educated. There's also fun to be had in Kevin Depinet's realistic visualization of a 1960s/1970s home, complete with a harvest gold colored refrigerator and an avocado colored stove.

The title refers to an annual cookbook published and sold as a fundraiser by the women of the town. When Kat suggests including a hot dish recipe, JoAnne reminds her that the book is called "Soups, Stews, and Casseroles." Recipes of any other type are not allowed. The symbolism of that title might have something to do with the rigidity of life in a town where a particular life path is seemingly predetermined. That lack of creativity and flexibility may have led many middle class people to be less resilient in the face of the social and economic changes of the past several decades. It's possible Gilman may have set out to write about that but somewhere along the way found herself more sympathetic to the people most hurt by the anti-labor business practices of the past 40 years.

Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 will play the Goodman's Owen Theatre through June 19, 2016. For more information and ticketing, visit www.goodmantheatre.org.


Privacy Policy