Family is certainly on actor Cliff Chamberlain’s mind at the moment. At the first day of rehearsals for Rebecca Gilman’s newest play, Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976, Chamberlain and his co-stars gathered for their first read-through of the script, which focuses on the economic woes of a tight-knit Wisconsin household. But earlier that week in Los Angeles, Chamberlain and his wife welcomed their third daughter to the world, with Chamberlain traveling back to their former home of Chicago to begin work on the play just four days later.
“It’s definitely been a crazy few days,” Chamberlain said, noting happily that his wife and daughters will join him in Chicago shortly. The growth of his family, however, has further primed him to step into the shoes of the play’s protagonist, Kim, a manager at a small town cheese factory that has recently been acquired by a large conglomerate. Though Kim has been offered a promotion with the new company, he understands many of his friends and co-workers could lose their jobs, greatly disrupting the community where he grew up and which he holds so dear to his heart.
“I don’t think Kim ever fully understood how the opportunity to move up in the world would put him in such a tough position,” said Chamberlain. “The pitfalls facing someone who’s been pulled out from a pool of his peers are deeper than he could imagine, but he’s a husband and father first. And I understand that aspect of him on a deep level, especially as an actor going from job to job, always feeling the need to provide for your family. The fear of letting people down, which I see so much in Kim, can be very scary.”
“The pitfalls facing someone who’s been pulled out from a pool of his peers are deeper than he could imagine, but he’s a husband and father first. And I understand that aspect of him on a deep level.”
A native of Manteca, California, Chamberlain has yet to visit northern dairy country, but feels his own upbringing resonates with the fictional community of Reynolds, Wisconsin, at the center of the play. “A lot of the lines in the play and the descriptions of the town have made me nostalgic for my own childhood,” Chamberlain said, noting his hometown was filled with almond orchards and farms with grazing cows, many of which have since disappeared and been developed into residential neighborhoods. “Living in the city, you forget what the countryside feels like and how special those communities can be in terms of the support you receive from the people you live near. Even just knowing your neighbors’ names becomes a luxury. I remember how big a deal it was when someone new moved onto our street. Now, I’m so used to seeing moving trucks in the city that I don’t even really think about [the people in them] anymore. The way Rebecca has written about this community is so powerful. These people are there to stay for good and will try so hard to take care of each other. Whatever happens within the community affects everyone in it.”
Following the Goodman’s world premiere of A True History of the Johnstown Flood in 2010, this play marks the second time Chamberlain is working with the playwright/director team of Goodman Artistic Associate Gilman and Artistic Director Robert Falls. He also appeared as the young lover Trigorin in Falls’ production of Chekhov’s The Seagull that same year. “It’s fun working with people who love each other on both an artistic and personal level,” he said of the frequent collaborators. “You can tell they’ve worked together for years. There are times when you’ll pick up on something they say to each other that’s clearly based on an experience from one of their previous productions. It’s like they have a twin language. They are both so incredibly intelligent and dedicated to pushing their limits as artists; I feel really fortunate to be in a room with them again.”
While the presence of familiar faces may comfort Chamberlain, one element of the play is certainly new to him: the 1970s fashion. “It was totally eye opening,” he said of a recent costume fitting, where he found himself in suits designed in the styles of the era (Chamberlain was born in 1979, three years after the play is set). “You instantly feel different. Anything that was too tailored or form-fitting was nixed, and you think, ‘Oh right, clothes were boxier and bigger back then.’”
Though the clothes have a vintage feel, Chamberlain is quick to point out the themes of the play are urgently contemporary. “This is an incredible play about a community’s struggle to stay afloat. That’s a question many people are still facing today. It’s really a special opportunity to be able tell this story on stage at the Goodman.”