at Second City E.T.C.

All you need to know about the firemen’s strike of 1980 before seeing Cynthia Caponera’s Against the Grain is that it happened and that Charlie Baker crossed the picket line. Charlie, Mary Ellen, and Gracie Baker will tell you the rest–and maybe tell you some things they’re not aware they’re telling you besides.

In the first of three monologues in this one-woman show, written and performed by Caponera, we meet Mary Ellen Baker, Charlie’s wife, in 1980. She’s clipping coupons and planning the week’s meals–Charlie likes his meat, but he won’t touch chicken. She also plans her own activities–and again, she defers to Charlie and his work schedule. Her first words are “Don’t get me wrong–I love my family,” and her conversation with us covers such topics as the hanging of new curtains and the distressingly untraditional behavior of her daughter, who she fears will get pregnant before she’s married. “Choices,” she says. “In my day, you had one choice. You graduated from high school, you found a good man with a steady job–take you out to dinner once in a while–you had four or five kids and that was it!” Almost as an afterthought, she mentions that Charlie cried on the day the strike began.

In the second monologue it’s 1985 and we meet Charlie himself and learn why he didn’t want his wife to cook chicken. Charlie Baker used to be the firehouse cook, and his Chicken Marseilles–affectionately called Chicken Bakerman by the men who requested it–once won an award in a citywide contest. He hadn’t even known his coworkers entered him until the photographer from the Tribune came to take his picture. For Charlie, who admits to having “barely made it through the Army,” this accolade was high praise indeed, from the city and from his peers. But when the strike came, the bosses promised Charlie a promotion if he’d break the line. He entered the firehouse to see his best friend smash the award against the wall and say, “You ain’t one of us no more, Charlie.” Five years later, Charlie still doesn’t have his promotion and is still shunned by the other men. His first words to us, however, are: “Don’t get me wrong–I love my job.”

In 1989, in the third monologue, we hear from Gracie, the daughter on whom so many hopes and responsibilities have been pinned. (It was for her, Charlie says, that he gambled on the promotion and lost.) “Don’t get me wrong–I love my parents,” she announces to us right off. Thirty years old, she has moved out of her family’s house and into an apartment of her own, but otherwise she’s always done just as she was told. She still phones her mother every day to ask what she’s making for dinner, wonders whether a man will ever want her, and dutifully avoids the terrible specter of sex by never allowing a man to get close to her. “I could be a good lover if I had somebody to love,” she insists. “Comfort’s easy but it hurts, and love isn’t easy and it hurts more, but it’s better than comfort–isn’t it?” Gracie hasn’t found any answers yet but she’s asking the questions, and that’s the first step to making the choices her parents no longer have.

When the only things wrong with a show could be fixed by one more rewrite or another week’s rehearsal, you’ve got a pretty good show. (A bigger audience would have helped, too–having less than a dozen people in a room designed to hold several hundred will cripple any performance.) Caponera has the makings, with only a couple of rough edges, of some wonderfully real characters. Polishing up might include additional attention to Charlie’s movements and vocabulary. I don’t see a man of action standing with his hands clasped primly in front of him, and a few deses, dems, and doses don’t make a blue-collar man. A few trips down to 35th and Damen to listen to the speech of the residents Caponera attempts to portray would have sharpened up the accents and given the Baker parents the tone of affectionate familiarity that’s missing from their comments about each other. (When Mary Ellen says “My Charlie is a good man,” we wonder if she’s trying to convince herself as well as us.) Charlie’s accent comes and goes, but his wife says “We didn’t have a pot to piss in” as if she’d learned it at Berlitz. Haven’t they come from the same neighborhood? And wouldn’t their daughter have traces of that accent in her speech?

Don’t get me wrong–Caponera is a woman of immense talent. Although what I heard on this definite off-night sounded more like a field-trip report by a sociology major than a re-creation of the natives’ lives, it was only a short step or two away from being the show it could be. You’ll never know if you don’t go out to see it, will you? And I’d say the odds are pretty good you wouldn’t be wasting your money.