“Never put it past anybody to vote against his own best interest.”
This quote from JoAnne (Ann Whitney), an elderly pessimist who gets many of the best lines in Rebecca Gilman’s Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, embodies much of Gilman’s message about changes America willingly accepted in the era when big business played its trump card against private labor unions.
Like many works of historical fiction, Gilman’s play (presented at the Goodman Theater with commendable direction by Robert Falls) provides insight about modern America by shifting to the past and narrowing a complex issue to a small community of those most affected by it. The result is arguably Gilman’s best work—quite an accomplishment given her consistent expertise in crafting engaging comedic dramas.
Gilman opens with a well-paced exploration of Reynolds, Wisconsin, a small town not too far from Madison whose economy is tied to Farmstead, a family-owned business specializing in packaging cheese produced by Wisconsin farmers. With July 4th looming, the town is preparing for a celebration which will include a reenactment of government officials putting limburger cheese on trial.
Each of the six characters has a different relationship with Reynolds, defined by his/her generation. At the center is Kim Durst (Cliff Chamberlain), a blue-collar family man whose 17 years of work at Farmstead has led to a no-frills, middle-class lifestyle with a nice house and plenty of debt. Kim had been promised his father’s farm only to have it taken away when his older brother decided to enter the industry.
Kim’s wife Kat (Cora Vander Broek) is more content but also self-conscious about never finishing college—she sees the limburger cheese trial as a fun way to celebrate their community despite her teenage daughter Kelly’s (Lindsay Stock) eye rolls. Kelly believes that she has matured past the limited offering of Reynolds and concentrates her energies on political causes like the anti-death-penalty Clarence Norris case.
The action begins when Kyle (Ty Olwin), a family friend in his early 20’s, bursts into the Durst’s house and announces that the aging owners of Farmstead have sold the business to Consolidated Foods, a Chicago-based conglomerate. As the president of the union, Kyle looks to the law to ensure that Consolidated will respect the workers’ contract while knowing that layoffs are likely imminent.
The cast is rounded out by Elaine (Angela Reed), an empty-nest housewife who becomes a neighbor to the Dursts. Elaine—originally from Highland Park, IL—carries the arrogance of one who looks down upon those from small towns like Reynolds while also harboring a desire to be accepted by the Dursts. Her husband Jeff is an executive from Consolidated that quickly promotes Kim to be his hatchet man on the inside.
Some viewers might misinterpret Gilman’s script as being a one-sided glorification of unorganized labor, but Kim’s internal conflicts present the complexity of a system where the needs of the unified group often conflicts with the needs of members. Under Consolidated Foods, Kim has the opportunity to move ahead professionally and economically, and Kim acknowledges that some of Consolidated’s changes have improved efficiency at the plant. Still, he knows that he is playing a role in cutting his neighbors’ jobs to increase profits which will go to stockholders rather than the community.
The outcome of the chess match between Consolidated Foods and the workers’ union is inevitable. According to the US Department of Labor, only 6.7% of private sector workers are unionized as of 2015. But in 1976, a pro-labor President had just been elected, and the various characters express different levels of optimism for the future of Reynolds—a town facing a sad decline if its main source of revenue is shattered.
Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 is a welcome addition to Gilman’s repertoire and the beginning of a trilogy (her newest play is Rodvinsvanster (Red-Wine Leftists): 1977). The following is a ranking of the other five Gilman plays I have seen produced:
1. Luna Gale – The Department of Child Services is pressed with finding the safest environment for children while respecting the rights of unfit parents. Gilman’s script focuses on Caroline, a social worker struggling against debilitating burn-out, as she works through the case file regarding a toddler (the unseen Luna Gale) whose teenage parents struggle with drug addiction. Caroline’s work on behalf of Luna is juxtaposed with her continued relationship with an 18-year-old recently exited from the foster system with tragic results.
2. Boy Gets Girl – Gilman’s best known work is about such a disturbing topic that it leaves little room to showcase her skill for comedic lines. Boy Gets Girl begins with a blind date that rapidly deteriorates into a dangerous incident of harassment and stalking. The dater is seen on stage only three times, yet he maintains an ominous presence that plagues Theresa, a formerly confident professional writer. The catch-22 of Boy Gets Girl is a victim must be physically attacked before she can be protected from being attacked.
3. The Crowd You’re in With – The funniest of Gilman’s plays and also the simplest in theme, The Crowd You’re in With emerged as Gilman and her husband made the decision to remain childless. Jasper and his wife, trying to conceive, prepare for a barbecue where their guests include and older upstairs neighbors happily living without children and an expectant couple. The events that unfold force Jasper to ask if he actually wants children or if he is a passive participant in this life-altering decision.
4. Spinning Into Butter –Sarah, a new Dean of Students at a mostly white college, finds herself navigating through a plethora of reactions to an alleged act of racial harassment on campus. Sarah’s job is particularly difficult because the students and professors struggle to distinguish between acknowledgment of racial differences and racism. Gilman explores a pertinent topic, but her protagonist is a little too straight-laced when compared to her more intriguing characters.
5. Dollhouse – Gilman’s only misstep of the six plays I have seen is a modernization of Ibsen’s classic set in a lavish Chicago apartment. Lacking the empathetic characters and deeper explorations of Gilman’s other plays, her modernized Nora is self-centered and unlikable to a degree that Gilman’s attempt at a twist ending, which is to have the character not mature at the climax, leaves the audience with a sense of time wasted rather than insight gained.
Note: Gilman’s remaining five shows are A True History of the Johnstown Flood, Blue Surge, The Glory of Living, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.