Cliff Chamberlain, Cora Vander Broek, Lindsay Stock, and Angela Reed Credit: Liz Lauren

Goodman Theatre has been social-consciousness central this spring. Intentionally or not, the most recent shows at its two spaces form an American diptych, exploring the seductions of capitalism and the responsibilities of communities in the second half of the 20th century.

Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window was at Goodman’s Albert Theatre until June 5, telling the story of a Greenwich Village bohemian whose fancifully high-minded business ventures have left him broke and his wife pissed off. When Sidney takes yet another flier, this time on a weekly neighborhood newspaper, he unexpectedly finds himself poised for a real payday, assuming he can suppress his scruples. The friend Sidney backed as an independent candidate for city council turns out to have been bought by the powers that be—powers who are willing to buy Sidney and his paper too, if he’ll only wise up and play ball with them.

Now, at the smaller Owen Theatre, we’ve got Rebecca Gilman’s 2014 Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, essentially reproducing Sidney’s dilemma in a narrative set 12 years later and 1,000 miles west.

As Gilman’s subtitle suggests, it’s America’s bicentennial summer. We’re in Reynolds, a fictitious single-industry town located somewhere in south central Wisconsin, an easy drive from the Saturday-night polka dances in New Glarus. Jimmy Carter is the “presumptive” presidential nominee of the Democratic Party and 36-year-old Kim would be celebrating his 17th year at Farmstead, the local cheese processing plant, if (a) he didn’t despise working there and (b) it hadn’t just been sold to Consolidated Foods, a conglomerate “out of Chicago,” throwing everybody in Reynolds not only off balance but possibly out of work. “A fine note, isn’t it?” Kim says to his wife, Kat. “When you’re scared to death of losing something you never wanted in the first place.”

Soups doesn’t have anything like Sign‘s verbal or dramatic sophistication. A lot of Gilman’s strategies are standard issue for this kind of earnest, issues-oriented play, quite literally set around a kitchen table. There’s a crusty, quirky, truth-telling old friend of the family—a kind of grandma manqué—named JoAnne, whose job it is to say all the stuff the others are too polite or confused to mention, and a teenage daughter, Kelly (yes, it’s a total K-name family), who’s reassuringly stable even as she experiences a traumatic rite of passage in the discovery that her parents are human. Kim and Kat are decent, loving, hardworking, well-regarded, neighborly folks (he helps a disabled pal, she puts together the fund-raising cookbook that gives the play its title) shadowed by a familiar anguish: Kat’s pregnancy forced them into marriage and a small-town, cheese-centered fate sans college, travel, sexual adventures, and whatever other exciting things you can think of. Kim’s choices throughout the play are explained, sometimes all too simply, by his foreclosed options.

And when temptation arrives, it assumes a familiar form in Elaine Marcus, the genially bored wife of Jeffrey, the new operations manager sent in by Consolidated to make Farmstead a leaner, mea
ner asset.

What redeems these banalities—at least insofar as they’re redeemed—is the use to which Gilman puts them. Like Hansberry’s Sidney, Kim and Kat are seduced from themselves less by their weaknesses than by their virtues: generosity, trust, natural ability. Jeffrey singles Kim out for advancement at work because Kim can’t help being capable. (Not to mention frustrated: imagine spending 17 years under the supervision of people who aren’t as competent as you, just because of the good-old-boy complacencies of the shop floor.) Likewise, Kat befriends Elaine because she’s the welcome-wagon type, and absorbs Elaine’s pop-therapeutic self-improvement mantras because she’s smart and curious—and, yes, she can’t help being capable and frustrated too.

This isn’t the brash, Carl Icahn-esque corporate blitz portrayed in works like Jerry Sterner’s 1989 Other People’s Money. This is something more like Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, where the devil arrives with wit, worldliness, a von Furstenberg wrap dress, and loads of sympathy. As JoAnne says to Kat, hauling out her old-style dialectics for the occasion, “This is what the oppressor wants. Is for you to identify with him. Because if you identify with him, you will not resist him.”
Both Sign and Soups succumb to liberal feel-goodism in the end, which is to say that they show us people acting entirely, even festively against their own self-interest. That result seems especially callow in the case of Soups, partly because Gilman goes out of her way to soften the consequences of those actions—but mostly because we watch Kim, Kat, Kelly, and the others from the vantage of 2016, knowing how completely the Consolidateds of the world dominated the next 40 years, with their union breaking, their offshoring, and the rest.

But then I don’t think Gilman wrote this thing merely to portray a historical moment. I think she wanted to provide a template for the future. A case, however imperfectly stated, for the idea that we needn’t be in the world for ourselves alone.

Robert Falls’s staging places that imperfect case in the best possible light. Cora Vander Broek is a great mix of everyday practicality and fun as Kat, Lindsay Stock of precocity and foolishness as Kelly, and Ann Whitney of principle and plain old querulousness as JoAnne. Cliff Chamberlain‘s Kim is beautifully orchestrated between the low-affect weariness of his workaday angst, the defensiveness with which he approaches hope, and the bouts of playfulness that remind us he’s still young. As Elaine and a union steward/friend named Kyle, Angela Reed and Ty Olwin make excellent tests to put in Kim’s way.  v