The past four decades have seen massive changes in American commerce, some of which are evident to all of us every day. Your call to customer service, once attended to by a local representative, may now be answered by someone in Phoenix or Mumbai; the mom-and-pop coffee shop that you patronized every morning may now be a gleaming Starbucks. Locally-owned firms are now subsidiaries of vast international conglomerates, and once-familiar brand names are now barely recognizable to the consumers who’ve trusted them for years. The global economic landscape of 21st century America bears little relation to that of a half century ago—and the legions of middle class workers who once formed the economic backbone of our country have been downsized and globalized nearly out of existence. In an election year in which the plight of the dwindling working class has become a central focus, we may well wonder: How did all of this begin? And, more important, where do we go from here?
Rebecca Gilman’s newest play Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 (which premiered two seasons ago at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis) provides a micro look at what has become a macro phenomenon. Set in a small Wisconsin town in the year of the American bicentennial, the play chronicles the buy-out of a small cheese manufacturing firm by a larger company, and the effects, both economic and personal, on the families who have depended for generations on this company for their livelihoods and identities. In true Gilman fashion, the play focuses not on the larger economic questions, but on one particular family impacted by the takeover, and the sea changes in their relationships and community that result. With characteristic humor and finely observed human detail, she creates a disquieting, multi-faceted portrait of a family and a town suddenly thrown into wrenching conflict—and the choices that must now be made to ensure survival.
This is my fifth collaboration with Rebecca, and as always I am bowled over by the beauty and craftsmanship of her work. Without resorting to flashy overstatement or outsized theatrics, she finds the human truths at the center of social conflict, and imbues the many complexities of that conflict with quiet wisdom, understated passion, heartfelt empathy and the possibility of hope. Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 is one of her most accomplished works to date, taking us back to an era which in some ways may seem quaintly distant—but whose realities may offer a vital key to grappling with the vastly transformed landscape of 2016.