How did we all get to where we are right now? Was it happenstance that brought us here, or are our lives a planned accumulation of people and events that could only lead to this moment? To put it in cooking terms, are our lives happy accidents, like the creation of gooey butter cake, or do we follow the intricate steps of a complex recipe on the order of duck pâté en croûte? This is the question doggedly pursued by the sole character in Sabrina Mahfouz's drama Chef as she waits to resume cooking once again.
Upstream Theater's season-opening production of Chef at the Kranzberg Arts Center is a challenging meal, but rewarding, too, once it's completely digested. Guided by Swiss director Marianne de Pury and starring the incomparable St. Louis actress Linda Kennedy, it's a production that piles misery upon misery, spiced by sharp spikes of violence that are evoked rather than shown. Despite the litany of horror Chef endures, she keeps living — that's a victory no one wrests from her. Some lives don't feature grand trajectories celebrated by fireworks and praise, but are small things lived in the glare of other people's explosions and outbursts.
When we first meet Chef (she admits no other name), the front of her white kitchen smock is awash in blood. She hides the garment and then tells us the story of her life, perhaps more for her own benefit than ours. She has grown up victimized by the violence of men. Her father was made brutal by his failures, and marked each of Chef's own small childhood failures with a new cycle of beatings. Older and no wiser, she attaches herself to another abusive (although sexy) man, who continues the cycle. "I loved a man who cut shapes in flesh because he couldn't use words," she says. This poetic language is her hallmark, whether she's remembering the sensation of being choked into unconsciousness or dreaming up sumptuous recipes for the cookbook she's in the process of writing.
Kennedy delivers these lines with a vitality that makes them genuine. For the course of the play's 90 minutes, she creates a depth of sweetness in Chef's heart that, despite everything else in her life, enables her to praise to the majesty of a ripe peach and evokes the wounded soul of her friend and co-worker, Candace. But Candace is as battered by the fists of the world as Chef.
Only Chef's unnamed culinary mentor showed her any kindness; his one flaw was that he didn't care for baking, which was all Chef cared about when they met. She loved the way ingredients became something else under her hands. Chef realizes that her mentor transformed her into a chef through a similar process, which to her is just as magical.
It's that magical transformation — of eggs, sugar and flour and into cake, and broken people into something new and whole — that's at the root of Mahfouz's play. As she replays the events of her life, Chef recognizes that her life is more the result of a recipe than serendipity. There is no happy ending coming as dessert. But she's still alive, and still cooking. It's a small, dark life, but it's a victory.