The situation is all too familiar for many working-class families throughout this country.
A family-owned business that happens to be the major employer in a small town is bought up by a many-tentacled, publicly held corporation. And very quickly human labor is replaced by machines, workers are laid off, and the union contract that protects jobs and benefits is up for grabs. With few other sources of employment available, the workers feel trapped, and are faced with a dilemma: Do they stick with the union, or do they take whatever vestige of a job they can get, even if it’s a significant net loss on many fronts?
No question about it: Playwright Rebecca Gilman has her antennae tuned to the issues of this moment, even if her 2014 play, “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976,” now in its Chicago premiere at the Goodman Theatre, is set four decades ago, and its characters still hold fast to certain 1950s values. Gilman, who has dealt with such matters as religious fundamentalism (in “Luna Gale”) and “Blue Surge” (about the blue “code of silence” among police officers), also brings to these issues the fervor of a latter-day Clifford Odets. But while her heart is in the right place (and no doubt at odds with some of the Goodman’s wealthy funders and audience members), her storytelling can feel more heavily contrived than organic. This is certainly the case with “Soups, Stews and Casseroles,” which has its share of fiery scenes, but too often comes with a television drama predictability.
‘SOUPS, STEWS, AND CASSEROLES: 1976’ Somewhat recommended When: Through June 19 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $10 – $40 Info: http://www.GoodmanTheatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
The place is Reynold, Wisconsin, a town where family farms produce cheese, and Farmstead is the large factory that prepares it for retail. A small group of “founding families” with Swiss roots form the social elite. But mostly Reynolds is populated by hard-working, cash-strapped, in-tact families like the one at the center of Gilman’s story, whose kitchen is emblematic of tacky taste.
Now in his mid-thirties, Kim Durst (Cliff Chamberlain, who has a perfect handle on his character’s frustrations and temptations), has worked on the line at the factory for 17 years — ever since he married his pregnant high school sweetheart, Kat (Cora Vander Broek, who brings the perfect intelligence and understanding to her role). Their lovely daughter Kelly (Lindsay Stock, just right as a savvy girl awakening to many things), is now a high-achieving, fervently questioning student arguing against capital punishment on her school’s debate team. And while both Kim (who lost a family farm to his brother), and Kat (an accomplished secretary who writes for a local newspaper), should be doing better in life, they seem to have accepted their fates.
Almost overnight, the workers at Farmstead learn that the factory has been sold to Consolidated Foods, a company with headquarters in Chicago that specializes in buying such properties, stripping them down to minimize costs, and then either selling them for a big profit or moving operations to “right-to-work” states.
The head of Consolidated spends most of his time in Chicago, but his lonely, status-conscious, alcoholic wife, Elaine Marcus (Angela Reed, a twist on the Mrs. Robinson type), has taken up residence in a rented house next door to the Dursts. She becomes something of an aspirational figure for Kat, and clearly puts in a good word for Kim with her husband, who realizes he has just the man who can increase productivity and perhaps be the crack in the union. Confronting Kim at every turn is shop steward, Kyle (Ty Olwin), the young, fiery, college-educated guy who cannot leave town because he is caring for his ailing dad, a man who sacrificed all to keep his son out of the Vietnam War.
When push comes to shove, will Kim sell out and turn on his peers to hold on to his elevation into the ranks of management? Will his marriage and his conscience survive?
The relationship between the Dursts and Elaine feels overdone and artificial, but no one sees the falsity of it within the story better than the play’s one-woman, 84-year-old “chorus” — family friend JoAnne (Ann Whitney, who easily racks up many laughs with her blunt comments).
Director Robert Falls keeps the energy high, but the play’s outcome seems built-in almost from the start. And overall you might feel as if this is a play Bernie Sanders might have written had he not been too busy campaigning.