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THEATER REVIEW: Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2016-06-08

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Playwright: Rebecca Gilman

At: The Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: 312-443-3800;

GoodmanTheatre.org; $10-$40

Runs through: June 19

Sometimes a play is missing just one speech or emotional beat, and that's the case with Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, set in Wisconsin 40 years ago.

Playwright Rebecca Gilman quickly puts her protagonist between a rock and a hard place. Kim ( Cliff Chamberlain ) is a 17-year veteran of the local food-processing plant. When it's sold, Kim unexpectedly is promoted thanks to the new manager and his wife, Elaine, who rent the house next door to Kim and his wife, Kat ( Cora Vander Broek ). Kim's success, however, comes at the expense of other union workers as the new owners modernize.

Of course, the play's about much more than labor and management. It's about a way of life, friendships and social status. Blue collar Kim and Kat were high school sweethearts who married when Kat became pregnant, forcing Kim into the food factory job at 19. They have a solid life, with a 17-year-old daughter, but now Kim might lose his job. He bemoans the irony of being "scared to death of losing something you never wanted in the first place." Instead, Kim rises from labor to management, and a corporate job soon beckons providing a salary that would allow Kim and Kat to pay debts, upgrade their car and send daughter Kelly ( Lindsay Stock ) to college.

The new manager is unseen, but Elaine ( Angela Reed ) carefully guides Kat and Kim towards the middle class, introducing them to chardonnay, offering wardrobe advice and bringing Kat to a local women's club to which Kat never has been invited. Elaine is gracious and charming but is an agent-provocateur nonetheless, urging the move up the social ladder.

On the other side are octogenarian friend JoAnne ( Ann Whitney ), representing hometown values, and early-20s Kyle ( Ty Olwin ), who heads the union local. There's one more crucial factor: Kim expected to inherit the family dairy farm but it went to his brother instead, which Kim resents. Clash is inevitable.

Director Robert Falls—Gilman's longtime artistic partner—understands when to apply a concept to a play and when to disappear into the play, and he skillfully disappears with this naturalistic drama. The characters are sure, believable and vibrant on Kevin Depinet's glory of a 1970s paneled kitchen set, with almond and avocado appliances. Jenny Mannis's costumes, especially for Elaine, also provide clever social comment.

So what's missing? Kim passionately defends his promotion and upward mobility, but has no equivalent passion about the farm values which nurtured him, or the farm's emotional meaning to him. Because that piece is missing, the play's precipitous conclusion rings false. The play's two opposing philosophies are clear upon reflection, but one receives far more weight and flash than the other, and the balance needs to be better.


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