The very first production I ever saw and reviewed on behalf of EDGE Media Network was 2009’s “The Crown You’re In With.” Running at Chicago’s legendary Goodman Theatre, the work was my inaugural Rebecca Gilman experience. An artistic associate of the company as well as a member of the vaunted Artistic Collective, Gilman is an original talent with the ability to weave stinging sociopolitical commentary into unapologetically human stories using sharp, witty dialogue.
The Chicago premiere of “Soups, Stews, And Casseroles: 1976” marks the eighth collaboration between Goodman and Gilman, a slate of artistic offerings that also includes “Luna Gale,” winner of the 2016 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award. The newest production bears a hackneyed tagline that belies its intelligence: “Life was sweet in a small Wisconsin town… then corporate America came to the table.” The good news is this marketing sin is entirely forgivable.
Dramatic voiceover trope aside, the destructive themes with which the script grapples are appropriately ominous. Because when the curtain rises on the small-town Wisconsin Durst family, introducing them as completely dependent on the area’s only large employer, Farmstead Cheese Factory, we already know how the story ends. And it’s not happily. “Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976” tells the decimation tale of good working class manufacturing jobs in America over the last 40 years.
Corporate greed, globalization, families without options forced to take “progress” on the chin. Sound familiar? It’s meant to. Artistic Director Robert Falls and playwright Gilman, now collaborating on their fifth Goodman production, have ironically evolved into the well-oiled narrative machine so hated by the fictional Farmstead workers.
Supported by a flawless cast that includes Chicago theater veteran Cliff Chamberlain as Durst family patriarch, Kim, “Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976” is almost operatic in its depiction of the slow-motion destruction of an entire way of life. We know from the vantage point of 2016 that working and middle-class families continue to be squeezed by economic changes that began long before the Great Recession.
Gilman uses the hardworking, ambitious Durst family to tell the story of organized labor purposefully busted by the pursuit of greater profit margins. But the finished product is evolved beyond from the ham-fisted propaganda of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” The Dursts, including Kim’s college dropout wife Kat (Cora Vander Broek) and precocious teen daughter Kelly (the fabulous Lindsay Stock) are fully-formed characters. There have been choices and sacrifices. There are regrets and valid fears for the future. There are complicated dynamics between people who love each other honestly (and dishonestly).
Even the supporting characters avoid one-dimensional stereotype in the capable hands of Gilman and Falls. Elderly socialist neighbor and family friend JoAnne (Ann Whitney) is a surrogate mother to Kat and Kelly, not a precious caricature of Bernie Sanders talking points. And Angela Reed infuses Elaine, the wife of the cheese factory’s new corporate manager, with a loneliness and eagerness to connect with something real that removes some of the venom from her painful choices.
“Soups, Stews, And Casseroles: 1976” captures an elusive moment in time. When exactly did the “American Dream” with its promise of shared success for hard work and loyalty, start to slip away? What could we have done to stop it? While attempting to locate the beginning of the end, Gilman’s script also explores the flaws in armchair quarterbacking.
To watch the emotional, complicated plight of the Durst family is to understand that small moments and decisions have consequences bigger than one nuclear household. Day-to-day survival often requires the conscious suppression of long-term strategy. Americans can’t afford to deliberate when they have to eat. This is no less true in 2016.
In short, we have another Gilman/Goodman winner in town. It’s going to be a busy summer season of quality theater, but this one is a don’t miss.
“Soups, Stews and Casseroles” runs through June 19 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.