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Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976
by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 14, 2014

Nancy Bell, Emma Wisniewski, Vincent Tenninty Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Emma Wisniewski, Vincent Tenninty
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Walking into the Rep Studio on opening night of Soups, Stews and Casseroles:1976 made me suddenly feel like I was six years old again. The fully realized set is what first put me in that mindset, but the entire production kept me there.  A new play that has been developed through the Rep’s Ignite! New Play Festival, Soups, Stews and Casseroles is not only well-designed. With an excellent cast and authentic period atmosphere, the play provides a valuable look into small-town life in the mid 1970’s as well as displaying some thought-provoking parallels with the present day.

The title refers to an annual cookbook that’s being compiled by housewife and part-time journalist Kat (Nancy Bell) and her septuagenarian neighbor, Joanne (Susan Greenhill).  They’re typing up the recipes in the kitchen of Kat’s home, which is the center of the action in this play and in this family’s lives.  Kat’s family is a seemingly typical working-class family in small town Wisconsin. Her husband Kim (Vincent Tenninty) has worked on the production line of the same cheese factory for 17 years, and their teenage daughter Kelly (Emma Wisniewski) is working on a big debate project for high school while both her parents express their hopes for her future college education.  Life is as usual for them until Kim’s co-worker and union president, Joanne’s nephew Kyle (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), breaks the unsettling news that the cheese factory has been bought out by a large corporation, which starts a chain of events that leads the family into uncharted territory, introducing them to their new, more worldly and sophisticated neighbor, the new factory manager’s wife Elaine (Mhari Sandoval), and presenting various temptations and learning opportunities, as well as challenges to their assumptions and their relationships as their comfortable small-town existence prepares to change significantly.

Gilman’s script is chock-full of 1970’s and small town detail, dealing with issues of the day from the humorous (dressing up for a local historical pageant, descriptions of prominent local characters) to the more serious (labor vs. management, corporate greed, the death penalty, career aspirations for women, etc.), and and setting the immediate local issue (the factory buyout and workers’ concerns) against the backdrop of the 1976 Presidential Election. We can laugh as Elaine introduces Kat to chardonnay and the pop-psychology of the day, but also sympathize as the less sophisticated but intelligent Kat learns to assert herself and set goals beyond writing minutes for society club meetings and typing up cookbooks, and the good-natured but somewhat unfulfilled Kim is presented with opportunities for advancement at work and is forced to decide what his real priorities are. Meanwhile, Kelly and Kyle are there to represent the idealistic voices of youth and progress, and Joanne is there as a reminder of the importance of friendship and continuity.  It’s a very well-constructed play that covers many issues that still happen today, all with a quintessentially 70’s backdrop.

The cast here is impressive, embodying the well-drawn characters with energy and vitality.  As the earnest and dependable Kat, who is the center of the story, Bell portrays her character’s growth throughout the production with conviction, humor and sympathy. She and Teninty are convincing as the sweet, good-natured couple who obviously love each other even within the conflicts that the play presents.  Teninty does a great job of embodying Kim’s conflicted situation while keeping the character consistently likable. Elaine is somewhat of a challenging character in that she serves as both a mentor and an antagonist and representative of temptation in various forms, but Sandoval brings a bold, brash quality as well as a mixture of wit and a little sadness to the role that works very well. Greenhill is a real joy as Joanne, bringing a sharp, biting wit as well as an endearing quality that serves the play well and spurs on the rest of the cast.  Wisniewski’s spunky and infectiously idealistic Kelly and Gwiazdowki’s determined and charismatic Kyle also contribute great work to this excellent ensemble.

Visually, to describe it in cookbook terms, this show is quite a feast.  The wonderfully detailed set by Kevin Depinet is so richly detailed that I had to take some extra time just to look at it as I was walking out of the theatre. It’s a real nostalgia trip for anyone who remembers the 70’s firsthand.  It really is as if the audience has stepped back in time to 1976, with cool little details like the rotary-dialed wall phone, the round braided rug, the gold refrigerator and avocado green stove, and all the little era-specific knicknacks in the kitchen along with books on the shelves, clothes hanging on hooks in the entryway, the 70’s-era typewriter and much more.  It provides such an ideal backdrop to this very period-specific show, and the costumes by Lou Bird also contribute well to the atmosphere.

It’s exciting to see local theatre companies like the Rep actively participating in the development of new plays, because as good as the classics are, new works will always be important to the future of theatre. Soups, Stews and Casseroles: 1976 is a shining example the great success that these programs can produce.  It’s an intriguing new work–a funny, emotional and engaging trip back to an era many of us still remember, making for such a wonderfully immersive experience and an encouraging celebration of past, present and future. 

Nancy Bell, Susan Greenhill Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Nancy Bell, Susan Greenhill
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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