Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976
It's also the fact that, as of 1976, no one had started talking like a stand-up comedian yet, in everyday conversation. And even though the residents of Monroe, Wisconsin, all seem to dream of fancy home-cooked meals, they somehow get by on a lowly diet of Pop-Tarts, Shake 'n Bake chicken, and canned chow-mein instead. Allowances are being made left and right, dietary and otherwise, but the people making them don't seem very sure why, till the very end.
So, while they never get around to whipping up any of the great American foods suggested by the title of a cookbook they're assembling, the characters in Rebecca Gilman's play gradually do figure out what they're making of so many sacrifices, and come to embrace their destinies, as if shaking off a long Wisconsin winter. Near the end of the two-hour show, it's almost as if they'd resolved, on some purely spiritual plain, never to go hungry again.
Vincent Teninty plays the father of the household and, like our own fathers from the 1970s, he's subject to all kinds of pressures and strains his family can never fully understand, though they certainly allow for the occasional blow-up, as a matter of course. Nancy Bell is his wife, gamely struggling to make things pleasant for everyone else (as things get worse and worse), and Emma Wisniewski is their teenaged daughter, a spontaneous joy throughout.
Susan Greenhill, as an adopted grandmother, transcends the stereotypes of older women in comedy, with some very blunt insights into America in the bicentennial year; and Jerzy Gwiazdowski is the idealistic young union president, launched into high dudgeon by the arrival of corporate raiders from out of town.
Throw in Mhari Sandoval as the modern woman from Chicago, and the mixture becomes explosive. Seth Gordon directs the two-hour, working-class comedy, and I found myself peering more intently than ever into every enigmatic face on stage, hypnotized by their inner calculations, and the possibilities opening to each of them, in an age of liberation.
In a way, of course, I hate to see my own youth turned into a "period piece." But I suppose it beats never having lived to see the day. "Wow, this kitchen has everythingexcept a fondue pot!" I told myself, right before spotting one on an out-of-the-way shelf. Likewise, the clothing is perfect and, perhaps most especially, the unspoken tension after Vietnam and Watergate still holds the adults in an invisible vice-grip, till one decision or another is finally forced upon them.
Of course the lavish, "not-quite-ridiculous" attention to physical detail only serves to emphasize the passage of more than a few decades, and helps set the work firmly in the realm of art. But the grown-up narratives we witness all over again also remind that us that our teenage dramas were not necessarily the most important ones, back then.
Through March 30, 2014, at the studio theater of the Edison Theatre building, 130 Edgar Rd., on the campus of Webster University. For more information visit www.repstl.org. A canned food drive is also being held during the run of the show, in the lobby, for Operation Food Search.