Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2006

One of the really annoying things about being a theatre critic is that you have to think so hard about everything. There are some shows, and The Spitfire Grill is definitely one of them, that should not be thought hard about. It should just be enjoyed and the memories savored.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Theater Barn’s production of this modest yet daring little musical. The cast is perfect, the set is innovative and versatile, and Igor Goldin’s direction is fluid – focusing your attention precisely as the various storylines progress.

You can think all you want about this production. Think how captivating McKenna Miller is in the pivotal role of Percy. Think how expressive Marci Bing is in her portrayal of the feisty Hannah. Relish the small-town nosiness of Jerielle Morowitz’s Effy. Pity the rage and disappointment that Allen Phelps’ Caleb keeps bottled up inside. And root for Megan Rozak’s timid Shelby as she finds her place and her voice in her marriage and her life.

And by all means contemplate Abe Phelps’ fascinating set and Allen Phelps’ evocative lighting.

What you shouldn’t think too hard about is the story. If you let it just wash over you while you’re in the theatre and let it go at that, you’ll be fine. But if, like me, you feel obligated to ponder it in the shower and dissect it over your cornflakes, you’ll regret it.

James Valcq and Fred Alley share credit for the book, based on Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 film of the same name. Valcq has written the music and Alley the lyrics, and they are tuneful, moving, and absolutely integral to the telling of this story of redemption, forgiveness, and finding the courage to leave the past behind and move forward into the future. This is a musical where it seems absolutely natural for the characters to be singing, in fact you are often not aware of where the dialogue ends and the song begins. Music is always playing in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin. That its folksy twang is more suited to Percy’s native West Virginia than to the snowy Midwest is a trivial point.

I will briefly outline the plot for you, without giving too much away. In keeping the show’s secrets I am also concealing its faults. During the course of the show we get to know several residents of Gilead fairly intimately, and not all of their stories are told fully, depriving the ultimate happy ending of its power.

Immediately after her release from Taycheedah Prison Percy Talbott (Miller) proceeds directly to the tiny town of Gilead, Wisconsin. She has never been there and knows no one. She has come because of a photo she clipped from a book donated to the prison library depicting the autumn colors on the banks of Copper Creek in Gilead.

Hannah Ferguson (Bing) owns the Spitfire Grill, the only eatery in town, and she has been trying to sell it unsuccessfully for years, ever since her son Eli went missing in action in Vietnam and her husband died. Eli was the golden boy of the town, and his disappearance, along with the disappearance of good-paying jobs when the local quarry closed and the dignity they bring, has plunged the town into depression. To make matters worse, it is February.

So the town is less than thrilled to see Percy arrive seeking work and lodging. Sheriff Joe Sutter (Eric Richardson) is assigned as Percy’s parole officer, and he foists her on Hannah, who is too proud to admit that she needs help running the Grill. That changes when Hannah takes a bad fall, and has to summon her nephew Caleb Thorpe’s (Phelps) wife Shelby (Rozak) to run the Grill with Percy while she’s laid up. Town Postmistress and busybody Effy Krayneck (Morwitz) and Caleb, who has never recovered from being laid-off from the quarry, do their best to bad-mouth and sabotage Percy. But when Percy and Shelby come up with a scheme to raffle off the Grill in a nationwide essay contest, the stage is set for change in Gilead and in the residents’ lives.

As Valcq and Alley tell the tale, it is frequently one of hardship and pain. Goldin and his cast beautifully embody this anguish while maintaining the rhythm of everyday life that surrounds all human joys and sorrows. Whether you’re having a good day or a bad one, the trash still has to be emptied. That the cast all look like real people and not pretty actors is a great help. This is not to say that they are unattractive, in fact Miller is downright gorgeous, but that their beauty defies societies foolish and impossible to attain ideals. Costume designer Whitney Locher has dressed them in real life clothes too, which makes them all the more accessible. Gilead is populated with people you might meet any day on the street of any town.

Abe Phelps has designed a set that is a monochromatically dull wasteland of limbless trees and the barest shells of buildings. The subtle weaving of grays and browns serve as the depressing landscape of Wisconsin in February, the grease and smoke of the Spitfire Grill, and the barren wastes of the characters’ discontent. A small revolve moves the characters through time and space as well as through their emotional journeys. Then the bright colors of Allen Phelps lighting beam down and, as the song says, “The colors of paradise come.”

Miller, Bing, and Rozak form the heart of this show, and they do it beautifully. Again, I caution you not to look to closely at anyone’s story except Percy’s because they definitely get short shrift in the end. This is especially true of Hannah and Shelby, characters you are encouraged to invest in emotionally and are then left wondering “Wha’ happened?” How did Shelby and Caleb mend their marriage and their individual issues? How did Hannah come to reconcile her past with her present?

There is an additional character listed, in the program simply as “The Visitor” and played, silently, by Keith Hines, the revelation of whose existence dramatically changes the lives of everyone in Gilead. We understand the impact of his appearance, but not how his arrival miraculously solves everyone’s problems.

So, do as I say and don’t start thinking about these gaping holes in the script. This is one of the rare shows that I actually wish was about a half an hour longer than it is because I would like to see more characters’ stories fleshed out more fully, and I would have no objection to listening to more of Valcq’s music and seeing more of Goldin’s fine cast.

Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up the essence of The Spitfire Grill perfectly in the following poem, which is one of my favorites:
“It is not only in the rose,
It is not only in the bird,
Not only when the rainbow glows,
Nor in the song of woman heard;
But in the mud and scum of things,
There always, always something sings.”

That is what Valcq and Alley have captured in The Spitfire Grill, that eternal song of optimism and life that arises from what appears to be muck. It is a wonderful song and it does us all good to stop and listen.

The Spitfire Grill runs through August 20 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. Performances are on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 & 8:30 p.m., and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20.00 for all evening performances, and $18.00 for the Sunday matinee. The show runs two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Some hard, grown-up stories are told in the course of this show, so I would not bring children under 13. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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