The Spitfire Grill was in Off-Broadway previews on 9/11. In part because its heartwarming, American roots/small-town spirited songs and characters struck a powerful emotional chord in the days that followed, New York critics unanimously praised it. Nineteen years later, in a very different time, the musical’s theme of the possibility of redemption still resonates.
Set in the mid-1970s in the down-at-the-heels fictional town of Gilead, Wisconsin, the play centers on the titular café, run by Hannah Ferguson, as cranky an old lady with a heart of gold as a theatergoer could wish for. The always excellent Liz Weber, a mainstay of older female roles in Montgomery County theater, plays Hannah. Into her world drops Percy Talbot (Jessica Graber), recently paroled from a prison stint, feeling lost, alone, and more than a little angry. The script gives Percy a wide emotional range and developmental arc, and Graber makes fine use of the opportunity.
Four other characters are regulars at the grill: Joe Sutter (Sean Byrne), the kindly local sheriff, who becomes sweet on Percy; Effy Krayneck (Talia Segal), the comically gossipy postmistress; Shelby Thorpe (Alex Guyker), who becomes Percy’s co-worker and best friend; and Caleb Thorpe (Mark Steimer), Shelby’s angry and controlling husband. They form an effective acting ensemble. There’s an additional character, dubbed “The Visitor” (Michael Reid), a silent, apparently homeless, man — a sort of north woods Boo Radley —for whom Hannah and Percy leave loaves of bread behind the café.
James Valcq’s score, with folk, bluegrass, and country influences, fits the locale and spirit of the show like a glove. Andrew Nixon on the cello is the most notable member of Music Director Arielle Bayer’s four-member band. The cast’s singing likewise fits the down-home atmosphere of the place, and Bayer and Director Terri Magers wisely did not steer the vocals in the direction of a big Broadway-style sound. Magers also gets believable ensemble playing from the cast.
Among the singers, the women are stronger than the men. Graber starts the show with “A Ring Around the Moon,” expressing her desire for freedom after spending time behind bars. In “Into the Frying Pan,” she gives an up-tempo rendering of Percy’s initial culinary incompetence. She works well with other singers, including in “The Colors of Paradise” with Shelby and “This Wide Woods” with Joe. Her interpretation of her songs is consistent with each song’s place on her character’s journey.
Guyker’s pure, light soprano sound is best expressed in the second act’s tender “Wild Bird.” This moment, lovely for Shelby, follows a major missed opportunity by the playwrights, who have Percy deliver the play’s major reveal about the character’s tragic past in dialogue rather than song. Hannah gets to dig into ever-stronger material as the show proceeds, and Weber brings a sure touch to “Forgotten Lullaby,” near the first act’s end, and “Way Back Home,” near the second act’s end.
The men fare less well. Byrne, who brings a likeable, warm, relaxed demeanor to his character, also brings noticeable pitch problems to his songs. Steimer, seeking to express the depth of Caleb’s anger and frustration in “Digging Stone,” oversings at times.
David Jones’ set is as simple and straightforward as the script demands: a café bar with kitchen upstage, a few checkered-tablecloth tables and chairs, and a chair on stage left that serves as Hannah’s quarters. Kali Munro’s lighting is effective, starting at the show’s opening with a tight spot on Percy that dissolves into a broader pattern as she moves from prison into the town.
Meghan Edge’s costumes are realistic for the small-town setting, with Caleb’s plaid shirt a particularly nice touch. Elly Makowski’s sound design was marred by an opening night feedback event, but raises a broader question. In a show with an acoustic band and strong singers in an intimate venue, is it necessary to mic the singers?
Deindustrialization, and its corrosive effects on men’s images of themselves as workers and breadwinners, has been a theme in a musicals such as Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. In The Spitfire Grill, a local quarry has closed, throwing Caleb out of work, and leading him to direct his ire toward his wife. Women finding their strength by banding together is likewise frequently celebrated, as in Waitress, Fried Green Tomatoes and even Hairspray.
Locating these themes in a small Midwestern town produced few surprises, but blended them with the seemingly indestructible myth of small towns as the locus of natural beauty and genuine American virtue. Rodgers and Hammerstein used the same trope, less successfully, in 1947’s Allegro. Having lived in a small rural Wisconsin town, I may be more skeptical than most about that virtue.
Still, characters that make a new, positive start after prison, or losing children, or economic disaster, in a tale of redemption through mutual support and community, are hard to resist. It’s no accident that the show’s locale is named Gilead, a place to make the wounded whole.
Running Time: Two hours and five minutes, including one intermission.