Theatre review: The Spitfire Grill is bursting with heart

There may be few surprises in the The Spitfire Grill, but the cast of the Midnight Theatre Collective production are so full of talent and heart it is easy to forgive its predictable story.

Based on the 1996 movie of the same name, The Spitfire Grill tells the redemptive story of Percy Talbot, recently released from prison, who looks to the town of Gilead, Wisconsin to start her new life.  Clutching a photo of what the town looked like before it started to die off as the quarry closed, Percy arrives frightened and hopeful, finding work at the local diner.

What Percy doesn’t realize is that she isn’t the only one looking for redemption in Gilead, as she shares a rather crowded road with just about everyone else in the tiny rural town.  Heck, even the town itself needs saving.

Seems everyone in Gilead has a secret of some sort.  Don’t like Percy’s story once the secret of her incarceration is revealed?  Don’t worry, maybe you can relate more to Hannah’s dark past or maybe cheer on Sheriff Sutter as he thinks about leaving, or feel sorry for Shelby in a marriage that hints of abuse.  Playwrights James Valcq and Fred Alley jam so many sub-plots into the story it is difficult to be believe that at least one of them wouldn’t affect even the hardest heart.

Director Kerry van der Griend has gathered a great cast whose first goal is to ensure the show doesn’t get bogged down into its own sentimentality as it works towards its obvious conclusions; and this cast delivers.

Julie MacIsaac brings a perfect balance of vulnerability and hardness to her role of parolee Percy.  MacIsaac sets her own bar high right out of the gates with a tentatively optimistic “A Ring Around the Moon” but continues to find wonderful crescendos as the play progresses in songs like “The Colors of Paradise” and “Shine”.

Among the townsfolk, Barbara Pollard does well with the crusty grill owner Hannah who hides a spongy soft interior, much like the loaf of bread she leaves outside every night.  Catriona Murphy takes the abused Shelby to the next level by refusing to play victim and is matched well with Damon Calderwood who must walk the line as possibly the only character that audiences may not be able to forgive.  You can’t help but cheer on Steven Greenfield in his role of Sheriff and feel his pain at rejection and Sarah May Redmond is wonderfully quirky as the town busybody Effy.

Barbara Pollard and Julie McIsaac in The Spitfire Grill. Photo by Francesca Albertazzi.
Barbara Pollard and Julie McIsaac in The Spitfire Grill. Photo by Francesca Albertazzi.

Given Pacific Theatre’s tiny size, musical director Steven Greenfield stuffs three members of the small band (Stephen Bulat, Franki Lemon, Shayna Jones) up above Francesca Albertazzi’s Spitfire Grill set, but director van der Griend effectively more than doubles the size of Greenfield’s small group of musicians by using the actors on stage.  Where playing instruments by actors may be nothing new, the overall effect is far from distracting as the instruments are never acknowledged by the actors, but their existence manages to add an interesting and sometimes humorous layer.

With few surprises in its story, it falls upon on the cast of The Spitfire Grill to give life to its residents of Gilead; this cast bursts with so much heart that it is easy to recommend you pull a stool up to the counter and enjoy what’s being served at The Spitfire Grill.

Just be sure to leave room from some apple brown betty.

4 Out of 5 Stars The Spitfire Grill

Music and lyrics by James Valcq.  Lyrics and book by Fred Alley.  Directed by Kerry van der Griend.  A guest production at Pacific Theatre by the Midnight Theatre Collective.  On stage at Pacific Theatre through October 27, 2012.  Visit http://www.pacifictheatre.org for tickets and information.

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