As its title implies, Rebecca Gilman’s new play, Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, is set during the American bicentennial—but its roots are very much in the present day, notably the 2011 protests in Madison, Wisconsin, after Governor Scott Walker proposed eliminating collective bargaining for public sector unions in order to alleviate the state’s budget crisis.
Gilman has never belonged to a union herself—as a playwright, she’s considered an independent contractor. But growing up in Birmingham, Alabama—at the time home to a Purina plant and a company that made fire extinguishers—she saw how a town could depend on a plant and how unions could prevent communities from coming apart. She also saw how, at least in the 70s, the union workers in those plants were still part of the middle class, a group that is now rapidly being squeezed out of existence.
“The divide is bad for everyone,” she says. “Economic disparity is stressful. People are not feeling safe. The rich feel threatened, and the poor feel their entire existence threatened.”
Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 has a second inspiration: a cookbook Gilman found at a garage sale with the same title. It had been compiled by the women of a small Wisconsin town to support the county senior center. Flipping through it, Gilman starting thinking, “You don’t realize how, in a small community, everyone is a community organizer.”
The play explores the various communities and loyalties in Reynolds, Wisconsin, after the local owners of the town’s cheese plant sell out to a Chicago-based conglomerate. Almost by accident, one of the townies, Kat Durst, befriends Elaine Marcus, the wife of the new plant manager; this friendship leads to a promotion for Kat’s husband, Kim, who has worked at the plant for 17 years with very little personal satisfaction, but also alienates the Dursts from their old friends and neighbors.
Like much of Gilman’s work, including Spinning into Butter, which examined campus racism, and, most recently, 2014’s Luna Gale, which considered the fate of the baby daughter of two meth heads, Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 is very much an “issue play.” How much do we owe our community, Gilman asks, especially if the efforts we’re required to make for the greater good contradict our own personal interests?
The individual characters aren’t based on ideas, but on Gilman’s own family and family friends. “Everybody is someone I’ve known,” she says. “I wrote [the play] really efficiently. People kept coming into that kitchen and talking. When I needed a plot, I knew everyone so well, I could show the characters where I wanted them to go.”
Many Goodman audience members, however, may identify less with the Dursts than with Elaine Marcus, who, before the move to Wisconsin, lived in Highland Park, shopped at boutiques in the city, and attended the CSO (one of her neighbors, she boasts, was a cellist). In Reynolds, she scorns the strict social hierarchy that favors the old Swiss families, preaches the necessity of assertiveness (she’s studied I’m OK, You’re OK and When I Say No, I Feel Guilty), and suggests mixing up the heavy cream-based recipes in the Soups, Stews, and Casseroles charity cookbook with gazpacho.
Gilman feels the ideas in the play will transcend the backgrounds of the individuals sitting in the audience. “People feel strongly a sense of fear when a corporation moves in,” she says. “Something is lost when there’s a centralized economic power. I want people to ask themselves what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost since 1976 and to think about the ways in which people who don’t have power can find power. There’s an understanding that we’re all in it together.”
Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, through Sun 6/19, Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $10-$28.