Story: Kim and Kat both grew up in the small town of Monroe, Wisconsin and were high school sweethearts. Kat went off to college, but an early pregnancy and subsequent, unplanned marriage to Kim put an end to that. Kim was set to inherit his dad’s dairy farm until his older brother came back from Vietnam and decided that he’d like to be a farmer after all, changing his mind after earlier rejecting his father’s offer and leaving Kim odd man out.
So, Kim took a job in the town industry, a cheese factory that essentially supports Monroe’s economy. Kat works part-time, writing a weekly column for the local paper, while their teen daughter Kelly has her sights set on college.
While Kat and neighbor Joanne put together their contributions for the town’s annual ‘Soups, Stews and Casseroles’ cookbook, 1976 edition, local union chief Kyle stops by with news that a Chicago-based company called Consolidated Foods has purchased the factory. Soon Kim and Kat meet Elaine, wife of the company man sent to streamline the factory.
Consolidated Foods has a history of buying companies, trimming the payroll and then selling them off. Despite that, Kim accepts Consolidated’s offer of a promotion out of the union and into management. Quickly, he finds himself battling old friends and even his own family. He has to determine which is more important: Career growth or solidarity with family, friends and neighbors?
Highlights: The fruition of The Rep’s own Ignite! New Play Festival, this wonderfully written drama by Rebecca Gilman is receiving its world premiere after being commissioned by The Rep and developed through Ignite!, as well as the New Harmony Project 2013 Conference in New Harmony, Indiana.
Seth Gordon, associate artistic director of The Rep and overseer of Ignite!, notes that Gilman’s splendid effort is “the first of what I hope will be many times St. Louis audiences see a play written especially for The Rep to develop and premiere.” That mission most certainly has been accomplished.
Other Info: The dissolution of factories and manufacturing jobs in America seemed to begin in the 1970s, the decade in which Gilman sets her sober, two-act drama. Headlines from Wisconsin and elsewhere in the past few years, though, appear starkly similar to the struggles going on in the Midwestern town of Monroe, a hamlet built on traditional values of hard work, solidarity and community.
The strength of Gilman’s story extends beyond the believable plot to the natural dialogue of her characters. These individuals talk a lot like people you might recognize from your own economic background or social history. They can be petulant or princely, self-centered or egalitarian, intelligent or thick-headed, depending on the situation. Mostly, they come across as authentic.
It’s no accident that Elaine’s husband is never seen. Representing the monolithic and aptly named Consolidated Foods, he has no face or personality of his own, but rather is a cog in the impersonal wheel of corporate greed that moves inexorably across the American landscape.
The ensemble cast includes Nancy Bell as Kat, Susan Greenhill as Joanne, Emma Wisniewski as Kelly, Jerzy Gwiazdowski as Kyle, Vincent Teninty as Kim and Mhari Sandoval as Elaine. Each makes the most of his or her opportunities to imprint identifiable traits upon their characters with clarity and conviction.
Sandoval as Elaine, e.g., isn’t completely a villain. She’s used to a pampered way of life, for sure, but her habitual drinking and flirtatious ways mask a loneliness and desperation that is palpable.
Bell combines patience, steadfastness to duty and a big heart that daily help her overcome her own frustrations about what might have been, choosing resiliency over bitterness. Wisniewski’s diminutive stature and fair-mindedness merge with Kelly’s natural desires to be ‘an adult’ in a charming and effective manner.
Greenhill is given the play’s abundant laughs and delivers them with panache as a determined, elderly liberal with an undying devotion to the townspeople. Conversely, most of the philosophical and social discourses are given to Kat, which Bell delivers simply and affectingly.
Gwiazdowski depicts Kyle as a young leader determined to help his union as best he can, making the most of a life that held high promise when he was a college student at the University of Wisconsin. Teninty does very well in the difficult role of Kim, balancing Kim’s strong desire to take care of his family as best he can with his role as a trusted worker in the factory.
Kevin Depinet’s set design consumes the stage with an expansively realistic look at a middle-class home, with doors exiting off the main kitchen area to the outside at stage left and other rooms at stage right, with finely appropriated props (such as the black wall phone) provided by Emily Frei and Todd Moore.
Lou Bird’s costumes fit the times well, John Wylie and Rusty Wandall add lighting and sound, respectively. Gordon’s direction is straightforward, well modulated and sharply focused on character portrayal throughout.
Is it 1976 or 2014? Regardless, the characters and issues in Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976 will resonate with you long after you’ve left the theater, because they’re so familiar.
Play: Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Emerson Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 30
Tickets: $49-$63; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.