Review: The Rep's 'Soups, Stews and Casseroles' is Tasty Fare

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Although the story takes place nearly 40 years in the past, “Soups, Stews and Casseroles; 1976,” the play by Rebecca Gilman currently having its world premiere at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is very much a story of today. In the 70s, King Capitalism was polishing its crown, and corporate takeovers—hostile or otherwise—were damn good business. Never mind the wreckage left on the battlefield; there was gold to be plundered.

It’s a big, complicated story, which Gilman condenses down to a cheese factory and one family in a small, tight-knit Wisconsin community. Often funny, sometimes poignant, and always thoughtful, “Soups, Stews and Casseroles” is a winner and one of the most “human” plays you’re likely to see.

 Nancy Bell as Kat, Vincent Teninty as Kim and Susan Greenhill as Joanne.  ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell as Kat, Vincent Teninty as Kim and Susan Greenhill as Joanne.
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The play revolves around easy-going Kim, played with stoic perfection by Vince Teninty, who has slogged through life working at the town’s biggest employer, a cheese factory. When a large conglomerate buys the factory, they live up to their reputation by modernizing, cutting jobs and maximizing profits. When Kim is promoted to management (they need a local face to pacify the commoners), the community arches its collective eyebrow. As the slip-shod local union clumsily tries to mount a defense against the corporate Goliath, Kim increasingly becomes alienated from his friends, the community, and eventually, his family.

Thanks to hindsight, the audience knows where this is going, and it’s probably no accident that Gilman set the play in Wisconsin, the scene of massive worker protests in 2011, and where current efforts at worker and voter disenfranchisement are stunningly arrogant and successful. But in 1976, nobody knew what was coming. Kirk Kekorian was creating the blueprint for taking over corporations and stripping them of their assets, including people, but corporate raiders like Carl Icann and Ivan Boesky—who in real life said, “I think greed is healthy,” which Oliver Stone would resurrect as “Greed is good” in the movie Wall Street—were just getting started.

Nancy Bell as Kat.  ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Courtesy of Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell as Kat.
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Courtesy of Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The play is not as hamfisted as the truth warrants, however. Gilman does not paint the capitalists with too heavy a brush, so the audience actually is rooting for Kim’s new job, the higher pay, a possible promotion, and a better life. Even we can get caught up in the trappings of money and the “I got mine” attitude. The decision he faces—whether to follow the siren song of “success” or stick with his people—is not a big grand conflict worthy of the Greeks, but it is the kind of decision we all face from time to time, and its remedy calls for an everyday, everyman kind of heroism.

Teninty is marvelously understated as Kim. His portrayal is the perfect representation of a man who has, without bitterness, accepted his responsibilities to his family and his own lot in life, and no one is more surprised about his promotion than he. “Nobody ever asked my opinion before,” he says of his new bosses, and instantly we grasp his quiet life of desperation. Nancy Bell, as wife Kat, is predictably wonderful, once again inhabiting her character so fully that one is immediately absorbed in her skillful performance—which doesn’t come off as a performance at all.

Mhari Sandoval as Elaine and Emma Wisniewski as Kelly.  ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr Courtesy Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Mhari Sandoval as Elaine and Emma Wisniewski as Kelly.
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr
Courtesy Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Mhari Sandoval is a sheer delight as Elaine, the wife of the new corporate manager. She needles her way into Kim and Kat’s lives with her city smarts, style and boozy afternoon “tea,” while Susan Greenhill, as family friend and resident opinionated wise cracker, Joanne, laments the infiltration of the enemy in hilarious fashion. Daughter Kelly, well played by Emma Wisniewski, gives the play much of its gravitas, especially in her scenes with Kim that emphasize the struggling father/daughter relationship. Jerzy Gwiazdowski is good too as Kyle the young rock star wannabe and ersatz local union leader who’s in over his head but has the passion to see it through.

Seth Gordon has skillfully directed a smooth production with totally believable performances by each of the actors on a picture perfect set (is that a fondue pot I see?) by designer Kevin DePinet. There’s strong work by costume designer Lou Bird, and fine work by John Wylie and Rusty Wandall on lights and sound as well.

Emma Wisniewski as Kelly and Jerzy Gwiazdowski as Kyle. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Courtesy Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Emma Wisniewski as Kelly and Jerzy Gwiazdowski as Kyle.
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Courtesy Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

In the end, Kim is faced with the decision that we all face. Will we, as a society, choose corporations and their unwavering and unsympathetic devotion to profits as the defining factor in our world, or will we choose humanity?

“Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976,” was commissioned, developed and produced under The Rep’s Ignite New Play Festival, which is currently in performance. For information or tickets to “Soups, Stews and Casseroles, which continues through March 30, or the Ignite festival, visit The Rep’s website.

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