It’s like “Romeo and Juliet” in a small company town on the Minnesota prairie.
“Spamtown, USA,” Philip Dawkins’ crackling drama that premiered Friday at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis, includes a romance between teenagers Travis Olsen and Amy Bolton. Their love is doomed not simply because their families represent the warring sides — workers and management — during a bitter labor strike that overwhelms their world and turns brothers into spitting enemies.
The lovers’ goals also are from different universes as Madonna fan Amy (spirited Arden Michalec) can’t wait to graduate high school so she can go to New York to study fashion while Travis (smarmy Zachary Sullivan) just wants to get an engine for his car.
The good news for these two is that unlike in Shakespeare, they don’t die by poison — although their love and dreams turn sour.
A Chicago-based dramatist best known in the Twin Cities for “Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches The Musical” at CTC, “Charm” at Mixed Blood and “Le Switch” at the Jungle, Dawkins drew inspiration for his newest play from the mid-1980s P-9 strike that convulsed the Hormel facility in Austin, Minn. That episode, where the National Guard was called out, spawned books and an Academy Award-winning film. And now Dawkins’ play, a coming of age tale, adds a child’s eye view of the events.
Dawkins, director Will Davis and their design crew have teamed up for a propulsive, witty and emotionally potent telling of the labor conflict, which is mostly in the background for the kids until it comes to dominate their lives.
Christopher Heilman’s scenic design includes a playing area separated by a large plastic curtain that marks the entrance to the Spam factory. Only adults go behind the curtain. Modular set pieces that resemble store freezers are torn apart and put together to suggest a salon, a school or a house. The Olsens and Boltons may live in glass houses, but they do more than just throw stones. Union leader Mr. Olsen (Dan Hopman as a hothead) spits on those he disagrees with, including his brother (empathetic Reed Sigmund) and especially Mr. Bolton (calm, measured Dean Holt).
The cast also includes Sandra Struthers as Miss Berg, mother of Travis and Jude, and Maureen Sherman-Mendez, as a salon owner.
The show, which occasionally tries a little too hard to please, has many charms. At one point during a visit to the salon, Mrs. Bolton (Autumn Ness) tells daughter Carol to pay someone a false compliment. Carol asks, “Are you going to tell me a lie?” Mrs. Bolton: “It’s not a lie, honey, it’s parenting.”
“Spamtown” uses music as well as other markers of the era to transport audiences to the 1980s, including ripped clothes (Trevor Bowen did the costumes), the Ronald Reagan expression “morning in America” and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.
The young people in the drama, including Travis’ tennis-playing sibling Jude (Isabella Spiess), Amy’s curious sister Carol (Malia Berg) and Travis’ cosmos-obsessed cousin Scott (Marcelo Mena), use the expression “blah blah blah” when they talk about boring adult stuff. But we hear less of it as the action progresses, an indication that they’re becoming more aware, and more interested in the things from the adult world that shape their lives.
At the end of the show, the kids gather up their toys and place them in a pile. The space shuttle, the doll, the tennis racquet, they are imbued with meaning, for they are the dreams of a generation of kids who grew up, and out, of their childhood innocence in “Spamtown.”