Rebecca Gilman‘s ’70s–set union manifesto speaks to today, but doesn't have that much to say.
Rebecca Gilman’s play, set in a small Wisconsin town in the year of its title, runs for two more weeks in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre. It’s tempting to daydream about forcing Wisconsin governor Scott Walker to attend every remaining performance. Maybe repeated viewings of Gilman’s ground-level examination of what happens to a one-factory town when that factory gets bought up by an efficiency-minded corporation would open the union-busting Republican’s eyes to the value of collective bargaining. One can even imagine Gilman thinking of Walker as she wrote her play. It’s harder to imagine, though, what other audiences she had in mind.
The fictional Reynolds, Wisconsin is home to the Farmstead cheese factory, the town’s largest employer. Gilman’s play takes place entirely in the kitchen of Kim (Cliff Chamberlain), a 17-year employee of the factory; the show’s title comes from the annual community cookbook being assembled by Kim’s wife, Kat (Cora Vander Broek) and family friend and dyed-in-the-wool liberal JoAnne (Ann Whitney).
When a Chicago conglomerate takes over the factory, both Kim and Kat fall under the influence of the new boss’s wife, Elaine (Angela Reed), who brings promise of a promotion for Kim and a taste of big-city sophistication for Kat. But siding with management puts them in opposition to honorary family member Kyle (Ty Olwin), the president of the workers’ weak union.
What’s at stake is the future of the entire community, but Gilman’s focus on the interpersonal relationships of a single family makes the stakes feel lower than that, despite invested and layered performances—Chamberlain, Vander Broek and Whitney all imbue their characters with welcome nuance. Gilman gives lip service to anti-union arguments and offers a healthily wry historical perspective, given Kyle’s investment in presidential candidate Jimmy Carter as a labor savior.
But the main takeaway from Gilman’s moral setup—that good people will do the right thing and bad people are unhappy—wouldn’t pass muster at the debate tournament that provides Kat and Kim’s teenage daughter Kelly (Lindsay Stock) with her progressive awakening. Soups, Stews, and Casseroles is probably good for you, but the broth is a little thin.
Goodman Theatre. By Rebecca Gilman. Directed by Robert Falls. With Cliff Chamberlain, Cora Vander Broek, Ann Whitney, Angela Reed, Ty Olwin, Lindsay Stock. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.