Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976 | The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre

soup stews_therep_75What ultimately does happen affects each person differently, but it is safe to say without risking spoilers that one should always beware of what he or she wishes for.

soup stews_therep

Mhari Sandoval as Elaine and Emma Wisniewski as Kelly. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

The Rep’s Studio Theatre stage gives the audience the illusion of having arrived by time machine rather than down the familiar stairs to the intimate black box. The stage is a spot-on rendition of a mid-1970s kitchen, thanks to scenic designer Kevin DePinet, right down to the harvest gold refrigerator and fondue pot. Coffee is made in an electric percolator, dinner might be Shake ‘N Bake pork chops, and teenage daughter Kelly (Emma Wisniewski) eats her Pop Tarts on a paper towel. When we first meet her, her mother Kat (Nancy Bell), and Mom’s friend Joanne (Susan Greenhill), Kelly is trying to decide on a debate topic for competition and the adults are working on their annual Soups, Stews and Casseroles community cookbook. It is, of course, 1976—not incidentally the Bicentennial year—and playwright Rebecca Gilman puts us squarely in the middle of a working class family about to be in crisis.

Kat types away at the recipes while Joanne, an older woman who is hard of hearing and even harder on conservative politics, sorts through the index cards of submissions from other women in Monroe, Wisconsin, a small factory town whose economy revolves around cheese: making, packaging, selling, and shipping. Very often such towns cannot survive without such an establishment, and Monroe is no exception, but livelihoods are being threatened by a corporation that has bought the plant and plans to reorganize it. We meet Kyle (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), another family friend and surrogate son, who is the president of the union to which both he and Kim (Vincent Teninty), husband and father to the family, belong. Kyle is panicking over the prospect of the changes that may be made, but Kim adopts more of a “wait and see” attitude at this point.

As it happens, the new head of the company and his flashy wife, Elaine (Mhari Sandoval), recently arrived from Chicago, have rented a house next door to the family. Elaine soon insinuates herself into their lives by making friends with Kat. She is sophisticated and urbane, a complete contrast to the naïve, unworldly Kat, who left college to get married and have a baby. Kat has little education and her only job outside the home has been contributing items to the local newspaper for, as she puts it, “pin money” and seasonal work at the plant. The 1970s economic recession is going full speed ahead, and these working class people have attached their hopes to Jimmy Carter who is elected during the play. But, in hindsight, we know that, as with all economic slumps, it doesn’t matter much who is in charge, even though whoever is sitting in the White House gets the blame or the praise, depending on the circumstances. What matters at this point is that these people have to struggle to pay their bills and are deeply in debt.

What ultimately does happen affects each person differently, but it is safe to say without risking spoilers that one should always beware of what he or she wishes for. We do know this, of course, but we keep thinking that more money can fix almost anything. As the “K” family learns (their last name is mentioned but not listed in the program, and I didn’t catch it), that is not true. And yet, there is some level of self-awareness, because, as Kim says of the job that has supported his family for 17 years, he is “scared to death of losing something [he] never wanted anyway.” He endured a major disappointment when his father died, so his options have become quite limited. It would require a great deal of courage for him to “fight the power” as young Kyle wants him to do. We see the worst side of everyone, because one of the most difficult things to do is feel good about others’ good fortune when your life seems to be going down the tubes.

Elaine gets Kat interested in the pop psychologies of the time—I’m OK, You’re OK and Your Erroneous Zones (yes, the obvious joke is made)—and tries to get Kat to be more assertive. Elaine has taken “assertiveness training,” but Kat just wasn’t brought up that way. She is a people pleaser, and that is a hard habit to break. Plus, she has, as so many women did at the midpoint of the 20th century, led an unexamined life. She isn’t happy or fulfilled, and she does have a small ambition—to take an English course through the local education extension—but nothing more. It does seem a bit hard to believe that the feminist movement passed her by entirely, but it appears to have done just that. Kat feels unworthy around her old high school friends who have a “homemakers club” from which she has been excluded until Elaine drags her to a meeting. However, that doesn’t turn out so well in the end, either.

Kim and Kelly are the fullest formed characters, and their father-daughter relationship feels absolutely real. She is a typical teenager, if such a creature exists, of her time and place; although her small rebellions place her at odds with her dad, the love is still felt. These two actors have more chemistry than any other two in the play, including the husband and wife, but Kim’s strongest scene comes at the Act I curtain when he and Kyle have an argument that escalates into something that becomes truly scary. Overall, Teninty’s character’s journey centers the play, and director Seth Gordon wisely keeps the focus on him while also eliciting good to excellent performances from the rest of the cast.

There is ultimately a great deal of Sturm und Drang, but the mood is mitigated throughout by a kind of sweetness and a generous helping of humor. There are a lot of laughs, many of them inspired by the terrific performance by Greenhill as the unrepentant old left-winger. Her timing is impeccable and her character makes quite an impression. She is a motherly figure to Kat, at least at first, but her greatest influence seems to be on the idealistic Kelly who, having decided on capital punishment as her debate topic, does truly believe that if we take a human life in the name of justice, then there is no humanity left in us. Joanne’s husband once stood up for what he believed against the ridicule of the whole town, and she and Kelly think all people should do the same when they know in their hearts that they are right, even if they will suffer for their principles.

As always, the technical details are fine, although I’m not sure that the lights have to be as dim as they occasionally are. Lou Bird has found fun costumes that are often horrifying to those of us old enough to have worn them. Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976 is a Repertory Theatre of St. Louis world premiere, having been generated from its “Ignite” series of new play readings which will pick for its third year on March 19. Three meetings allow works in progress to be read before audiences who give feedback to the playwright. (For details, visit repstil.org.) This project produced an entertaining evening of theater that isn’t going to blow you away, but it will at least amuse and move you to understand that the more things seem to change, the more they really do stay the same. | Andrea Braun

Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976 runs through March 30, 2014, and closes The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Season.

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