Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Spamtown, USA
Children's Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Silent Sky and The Convert

Sandra Struthers, Isabella Spiess, Zachary Sullivan,
Dan Hopman, Marcelo Mena, Reed Sigmund, and
Maureen Sherman-Mendez

Photo by Glen Stubbe Photography
After a string of marvelously fanciful shows, including a comical take on Snow White, a Cinderella outfitted for the holidays, and a breezy fable set in Jamaica, Bob Marley's Three Little Birds, Children's Theatre Company turns to far more serious fare with the world premiere of Spamtown, USA by Phillip Dawkins. Spamtown is a reference to the city of Austin, Minnesota, headquarters of Hormel Foods, producers of a host of food products such as Hormel Chili, Dinty Moore Beef Stew, Skippy Peanut Butter, but none more iconic than that canned loaf of meat wrapped in gelatin: SPAM.

Spamtown, USA is not about this maligned and much loved protein source (there are rabid partisans on both sides), but about the vitriolic 1985-1986 strike that lasted ten months, prompted Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich to call up the National Guard to maintain order, and tore up the social fabric of Austin. Dawkins addresses the details of the dispute between labor and management only indirectly. His focus is on the battle's effect on the town's kids. He gives us three families with five children among them, each of whom feels the strike's impact in a different way, all of whom have their faith in the ability of adults to solve problems in rational and civil manner badly shaken. This approach exceeds expectations, a canvas on which the dramatist paints an historic event in ways that allow its impact to mirror the deep schism that threatens our society today. Dawkins has written a ripping good play, and Children's Theatre Company is giving it a grade A production.

The play starts off a year or so before the strike. We hear about some of the grievances harbored by the Hormel workers, but mostly we get to know the kids, each with their own interests and distinctive personalities, well developed by Dawkins. There are the two Bolton girls, Carol in kindergarten and Amy a high school junior; sister and brother Jude and Travis, in 6th and 12th grades, respectively; and Scott Olsen, also in 6th grade. Scott is cousin to Jude and Travis—their dads are brothers who work in the Hormel plant. Jude and Travis' parents are divorced, and they live with their mother, who also works at Hormel. Scott's mother Rosa is Hispanic and runs a beauty salon in their home.

Mr. and Mrs. Bolton also work for Hormel, but he is in senior management and she is a research and development scientist. They are none too happy that college-bound Amy is dating Travis Olsen, whose only ambition is to get a bigger engine for his car. But, after all, Travis plans to work at Hormel like his father and his mother. What would be wrong with that? Amy points out to her father that he often says the workers should be grateful that they have such good jobs.

When the workers strike the following year, Amy and Travis' relationship is put to the test, especially when Travis' father, a union leader, badmouths Mr. Bolton at strike rallies. Money becomes tight for the strikers, and nerves are frayed. The children feel both. When the parent union withdraws support for the Hormel workers, some of the strikers go back to their jobs, while others continue the strike. This causes further divisions, with the hold-outs branding those who caved in as scabs, an odious word that hurts their children along with the adults.

The strike ends, as we know it did, and we know Hormel has survived and thrived in the thirty-four years since. The end turns out better for some people than for others and leaves some families worse off than others. Rebuilding trust and friendships is not a given. At best, it takes time. Dawkins ends with a coda that suggests that everyone turns out okay in the long haul. Since he based his play on interviews in Austin with adults who were children there during the strike, and with others who lived through it as adults, this may be what their testimony revealed.

There are nods to the lessons learned, and painful memories linger, but the cleansing wrap-up diffuses the tension built up throughout the play, and sidesteps the continued presence of issues like those that erupted in that painful and violent strike—issues that are especially felt in today's polarized society. Let's chalk that up as a missed opportunity. Still, Spamtown, USA does an excellent job of showing how the battles waged between adults—both in the workplace and in marriage—wound their children, and that children often see things with more clear-eyed vision than adults weighted down with prejudice and resentment.

Director Will Davis makes fantastic use of scenic designer Christopher Heilman's work, with mobile translucent carts that resemble meat or produce coolers adroitly rearranged to create the interiors of the three families' homes, the kids' schools, a malt shop, and the tennis court where Jude Olsen fulfills her athletic ambitions. At the rear, the entire wall is made up of floor to ceiling slats of the same material, a wall cordoning off the factory floor from the rest of Austin. Only the adults pass through those slats, entering their workplace, and they are sometimes seen as massive shadow figures laboring behind the wall. It is really quite ingenious, and totally effective.

The adult and youths on stage give equally stirring performances. Zachary Sullivan is deeply affecting as Travis, on the brink of manhood as he has to weigh his youthful wishes and romantic yearnings against the reality he will inherit from his family and community. Arden Michalec is terrific as Amy. Immersed in the current fashions with the aim of looking like Cyndi Lauper, over the course of the play she shows increasingly more depth and maturity as she recognizes the complexity of the adult world she will be entering.

Isabella Spies gives an authentic portrait of middle-schooler Jude, who feels emotionally abandoned in the wake of the strike. Marcelo Mano is totally winning as Scott, revolted by the conflicts waged by adults all around him, who seeks peace in the outer reaches of space. As Carol, Malia Berg has less to convey, but she is effective in responding to her mother's explanation of why the strikers are so scared and angry.

As that mother, Mrs. Bolton, Autumn Ness is excellent, firm but never overbearing in guiding her children toward what she believes is best for them, while maintaining the sentiment-free bearing of a scientist. Dean Holt plays Mr. Bolton, the company manager and target of the strikers' scorn, conveying the certainty that he is fair and decent (as he sees it), and that he must be unbending in dealing with his workers, as well as with his daughters.

Sandra Struthers, as Jude and Travis' mother, convinces as an overwound, overtaxed, single parent with a full-time job, using sarcasm to express her constant state of frustration. Dan Hopman plays her ex-husband, but at the performance I attended understudy Chance Carroll filled in, giving a fine performance. Reed Sigmund gives a persuasive turn as Gunner Olsen, better able to moderate his anger than his brother, and painfully recognizing the best way to meet his family's needs. As Rosa, Maureen Sherman-Mendez has a warmly affectionate presence, but assures us that Rosa is no pushover and will stand up for herself and her family. This especially comes through in a perfectly crafted scene in which she, Gunner, and their son Scott go door to door to enlist support for the strikers from their neighbors.

The play includes references to the 1980s throughout. There is Cyndi Lauper and also Madonna, parodies of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign ads, the inclusion of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and a reference to Garbage Pail Kids, a craze I truly had not though of since the 1980s. Popular music from the period is heard between scenes as well, and Trevor Bowen's costume designs capture the styles of the decade. Karin Olson's lighting design varies from bright days in all-American Austin, and the darkened atmosphere of labor strife.

Spamtown, USA absolutely works. It skillfully takes a fraught moment in history and weaves a human story around it that makes it wholly accessible. It is especially well suited for its target youth audience (Children's Theatre recommendation is for ages 9 and up). For adults who remember the crisis in Austin, which made national news but was especially closely followed here in Minnesota, it may rekindle vivid memories. For observers of the ongoing challenge working people face to make ends meet, and the fierce animosity among citizens who take opposing political views, it can be seen as a preview of what today's society may look like when, 35 years hence, we reflect back on it. If only we could be assured of such a tidily wrapped up coda where everyone comes through in good cheer.

Spamtown, USA runs through April 5, 2020, at Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Adult tickets are $20.00 - $71.00. Discounts for children (17 and under), seniors (62+), college students and members of the military. Rush tickets for unsold seats available at the box office two hours before each performance: $15.00. For tickets call 612-874-0400 or go to Recommended for age nine and up.

Playwright: Phillip Dawkins; Director: Will Davis; Scenic Design: Christopher Heilman; Costume Designer: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Designer: Karin Olson; Composer and Sound Design: Victor Zupanc; Dramaturg: Miriam Weisfeld; Dialect Coach: Micha Espinosa; Intimacy Choreographer: James Grace; Fight Choreographer: Michael Wieser; Assistant Director: AnaSofia Villanueva; Assistant Costume Designer: Molly O'Gara; Assistant Lighting Designer: Kathy Maxwell; Stage Managers: Chris Schweiger; Assistant Stage Manager: Isabel Patt;

Cast: Malia Berg (Carol Bolton), Dean Holt (Mr. Bolton), Dan Hopman (Mr. Olsen), Marcelo Mena (Scott Olsen), Arden Michalec (Amy Bolton), Autumn Ness (Mrs. Bolton), Maureen Sherman-Mendez (Rosa), Reed Sigmund (Scott's Dad), Isabella Spiess (Jude Olsen), Sandra Struthers (Miss Berg), Zachary Sullivan (Travis Olsen).