If the conversation my wife and I had on the way home from opening night is an indication, Ms. Gilman's play will be a strong contender for many a favorite list. "Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976" deals with what might be the defining socioeconomic issue of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: the dominance of American life by amoral and short-sighted corporate culture and its corrosive effect on our sense of community. When, in his 1897 book "Suicide," French sociologist Émile Durkheim coined the term "anomie" to describe "a condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals" he could easily have been describing the result of that corporate control a century later.
In Ms. Gilman's play, "anomie" begins to creep into a small Wisconsin town when the family-owned cheese factory that is the town's only industry is suddenly purchased by fictional corporate behemoth Consolidated Foods. Kim (Vincent Teninty), a mid-thirtyish employee who has always hated his job at the factory, isn't sure whether it's the best thing that could have happened to him or the worst. That uncertainly is compounded when Kim's wife Kat (Nancy Bell), who writes for the local newspaper, pays a Welcome Wagon visit to Elaine (Mhari Sandoval), who has just moved to town with her husband, Consolidated executive Jeffrey—who, appropriately, is never seen. The friendship that develops between Kat and Elaine motivates Kat to make some positive changes in her life (as Holmes once remarked of Watson, Elaine may not be luminous, but she can be a conductor of light). It also leads to a promotion to management for Kim and—as we see that he actually has a grasp of organizational and business principles that qualifies him more for administrative than assembly line work—a job offer at Consolidated HQ in Chicago.
It also starts to drive a wedge between Kim's relationship with his former union compatriots, in particular with Kyle (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), the 26 year-old union president and nephew of Joanne (Susan Greenhill), Kat's opinionated and unrepentantly leftist friend who is also Kat's co-editor for the recipe book from which the play gets its title. As Kat and Joanne’s relationship begins to fray, the book—a local tradition that is published every year—becomes a symbol for community traditions threatened by Consolidated. Problems arise as well for Kim and Kat's daughter, Kelly (Emma Wisniewski), whose school friends see her dad as a traitor.
This is a situation that could easily become a platform for strident preaching or turgid soap opera. It's a credit to Ms. Gilman's skill that, while she clearly takes sides, she avoids doing so in a heavy-handed fashion. The changes in the assembly line that Kim recommends, for example, clearly will reduce costs, but will do so by turning the workers into little more than biological robots. On the other hand, it's clear that the workers have become complacent about their jobs and that the union has encouraged an attitude of entitlement. Consolidated is still running an ethical deficit, but nobody is entirely without blame. The fault, as Cassius noted, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
The script does get perilously close to "TV movie of the week" territory at one point in the second act, but ultimately sidesteps it. The delivery of the author's core message in the second act by Kelly—that when we treat others as objects rather than fellow humans, it diminishes us—flows naturally from her high school debate project, so it emerges naturally from the script instead of feeling imposed. Even the "feel good" ending is, as it turns out, a logical development of a plot point raised near the beginning of the play. It could, perhaps, stand to be elaborated on a bit more to make the ending more credible, but that's a minor complaint.
Ms. Gilman has, in short, managed to address important issues using well-developed and credible characters in a way that's thoughtful, often funny, and consistently engrossing. A product of the Rep's "Ignite!" new play festival, "Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976"—which began as a staged reading at the 2012 festival—is an excellent illustration of the value of that project. The play still wants a bit of tweaking, but as it stands, it's already one of the better new scripts I've seen in recent years.
Turning from the script to the production itself, things are a bit mixed. Director Seth Gordon has done some impressive work for the Rep and his blocking and pacing are excellent but he has, I think, decided to play the script too much for laughs and has directed his actors—good as they all clearly are—to play everything a bit too broadly and make everything a bit too big. There is certainly comedy in this script (especially in the first act) but Mr. Gordon has pushed it too far towards farce for my taste.
That said, everyone in this cast does fine work, even if it all should be dialed down a bit. Nancy Bell's Kat is immediately sympathetic and painfully aware of the sacrifices she has made for her family. Vincent Teninty's Kim appears stolid but we soon see the resentments and regrets that come close to destroying him. Susan Greenhill appears to be channeling the late Selma Diamond as the raspy-voiced Joanne. It comes close to caricature, but that's obviously what Mr. Gordon wants, and she does it well.
Mhari Sandoval neatly captures Elaine's self-absorption and casual sense of entitlement, fueled by equal parts vapid self-help books and alcoholic "iced tea." The character is, in many ways, the prototype for the smug, Randian narcissism that seems to have swept through our nation in recent decades—especially at the upper end of the socio-economic scale—but she has a darker side as well, and Ms. Sandoval brings that out effectively towards the end of the show.
As she prepares her anti-capital punishment arguments for her high school debate contest, Kelly gradually becomes the moral voice of the playwright. Emma Wisniewski makes the character's earnestness believable, adding weight to the playwrights' message without sacrificing credibility. Equally credible is Jerzy Gwiazdowski's transition from comic befuddlement to steely determination as Kyle.
Kevin Depinet's set is an impeccable recreation of a mid-1970s middle-class kitchen, complete with refrigerator magnets, hanging lamps, window box, and a fondue pot. John Wylie's lighting and Rusty Wandall's sound complete the illusion. You can almost feel that cold Wisconsin wind as characters enter and leave the "mud room" stage left.
"Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976" addresses issues that continue to tear at the fabric of American life, threatening to replace the compassion that is our human heritage with the sociopathic self-regard that already infests corporate boardrooms. To paraphrase Linda Loman in "Death of a Salesman," attention must be paid to such a play. Our sense of community must not be allowed to fall into its grave like an old dog. We need to keep publishing our collections of soups, stews, and casseroles—if only to remind ourselves that we still have something in common.
"Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976" continues in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center through March 30th. For more information: repstl.org.