Thought-provoking script, fine cast mark 'Soups Stews Casserole: 1976'

For the News-DemocratMarch 19, 2014 

The retro kitchen, recreating the hub of a modest 1970s residence, takes the audience back to a time when harvest gold and avocado green were standard appliance colors, and a trendy fondue pot could be found on a shelf. It might be the exact replica of your mother's or grandmother's kitchen, or even your own -- in any case, you'll feel right at home.

Set designer Kevin Depinet's authentic work is a marvel of minutiae in "Soups Stews Casseroles: 1976." That's appealing, but this new play by Rebecca Gilman has much more to recommend than its homey small-town charm.

The conversational, intelligent dialogue and a thought-provoking script draws us into the routine blue-collar lives of a Wisconsin community disrupted when a conglomerate buys out the main employer. A compelling portrait of decent ordinary folks emerges, and it's one for the ages.

You may not have heard of playwright Rebecca Gilman, but after seeing this world premiere, you'll never want to miss one of her works. And you'll be talking about what you just saw for days. This insightful play was commissioned by The Rep after its inception at the Ignite! Play Festival last spring.

Seth Gordon, The Rep's associate artistic director who spearheaded Ignite's creation, guided this penetrating point of view with a sure hand. He brought out the warmth with nicely-timed humor, but also made the conflicts matter.

We're diverted to a transitory time in our nation's history, when the election of Jimmy Carter signaled an end -- for the time being -- of shady political leaders, after the disgraced departures of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. It was also another tipping point -- when corporations began taking over family-run businesses at an alarming rate, and organized unions were threatened.

The local cheese factory -- think Swiss Colony with its holiday gift assortments -- has been acquired by a Chicago manufacturer, and families are reeling as they try to hold on to their livelihoods. Battle lines are drawn between neighbors and friends when some grab opportunities and others are left out. Loyalties are in danger, and relationships will struggle.

This plot hits home for many, and while it is set in a different era, some things have not changed.

The serious issues presented are channeled through the middle-class family of Kim (Vincent Teninty) and Kat (Nancy Bell), teenage sweethearts who married when their daughter Kelly (Emma Wisniewski) was on the way. Kim planned to run the family farm but lost out when an older brother claimed it. Therefore working at the factory was the only option. He's promoted, and sees a better future ahead. That rubs longtime pals the wrong way, especially Kyle (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), the union rep.

Joanne (Susan Greenhill), a senior citizen helping Kat put together a club's annual cookbook, is miffed at the cozy new relationship developing between Kat and Elaine (Mhari Sandoval), the wife of the corporate honcho -- efficiency expert. Elaine is a sophisticated big-city dweller, used to a more well-heeled social circle, but bonds with her impressed, polite neighbors.

The well-cast ensemble excelled at showing their characters' depth, bringing out each one's distinctive personalities. Bell makes sure she is relatable, grounding her work as a pragmatic wife and mother of the day, while Greenhill's effective as an aging pal who's mind is sharp and politically aware, and whose social conscience drives the playwright's point of view.

Sandoval nails the role of a social-climbing woman with some deeper problems, while Wisniewski doesn't make a false move as the perceptive teenage daughter.

As the males striving to do the right thing for themselves, their families and their town, Teninty and Gwiazdowski are strong, with Teninty displaying a Drew Carey-everyman sensibility and Gwiazdowski potent as a moral compass.

The production features such recognizable circumstances and identifiable characters that its hard-hitting aspect is disarming.

And the end is just the beginning of the conversation on U.S. economic trends and our notions of community

"Soups Stews Casseroles: 1976"

Where: Studio Theatre, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, Mo.

When: through March 30

Box Office: 314-968-4925

More information: www.repstl.org

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