Theater Review: THE SPITFIRE GRILL (American Blues Theater at Stage 773 in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on July 20, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Sit — and calm — down and make yourself at show. A captivating work extolling rural redemption, The Spitfire Grill, a 2001 musical of the 1995 film, shows how, if a wound goes deep, even the healing is bound to hurt. Its tender focus is on a female parolee who takes a chance on a small Wisconsin town that she circled in a travel book. After some resistance, the citizens of Gilead return her trust.

Familiar as this “stranger-finds-a-family” formula seems, it just takes 16 swell songs that bring out all the force in folk music, seven strong voices, and an utterly convincing casting to make it new and turn it urgent.

As with Pump Boys and Dinettes or BoHo Theatre’s recent warm winner Bright StarThe Spitfire Grill — book, lyrics and music by Fred Alley and James Valcq — is as pure as the prairie and deep as topsoil, and Malcolm Ruhl’s music direction comes straight from country-music heaven.

Now playing Chicago’s Stage 773 theater complex, director Tammy Mader’s heartland-rich American Blues Theater revival plays up the sisterly solidarity of the show’s well-crafted and contrasted women. At the center is Percy Talbott (Jacquelyne Jones, a Patsy Cline redux), newly released after five years in jail for a very justifiable crime. Dreaming and drifting, this ex-con from West Virginia transplants herself to a backwater burg in southern Wisconsin, a town on the skids since its quarry closed years ago.

Though initially a lousy cook, Percy lands a job at the title joint (“Out of the Frying Pan”), Gilead’s one restaurant. Introducing her to the reflexively suspicious townsfolk is her parole officer, a sympathetic sheriff (Donterrio Johnson) who helps a nature-struck Percy to love the land (“The Colors of Paradise” and “This Wild Woods”). The other local men are Caleb Thorpe (Karl Hamilton), a controlling worrywart who supervises both the grill and his wife Shelby (Dara Cameron), and a confounding Visitor (Ian Paul Custer) who connects past and present.

Owning (in every sense) this greasy spoon where everybody knows your name is hard-boiled Hannah Ferguson (Catherine Smitko), a feisty survivor with a huge heart and a sad secret. Completing the village cross-section is gossipy post-office worker Effy Krayneck (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers), the unofficial town crier (and it’s usually bad news).

Hannah dreads having to lose her ailing diner and letting go of a ton of memories — as well as Percy and Shelby. But then Percy suggests that they hold a raffle, with the Grill as the give-away. This simple scheme (“Shoot the Moon”) triggers a sea-change: Along with the $100 entry fee, heart-breaking letters detailing hard times and craving second chances deluge this endangered eatery.

Along the way Hannah and Percy share their struggles of losing a child, Sheriff Joe develops a more than custodial interest in down-home-decent Percy (“Forest for the Trees”), despite her clouded past, and Hannah’s hidden mystery (“Forgotten Lullaby”), once revealed, proves that present-day forgiveness beats false hopes from the dead past.

It’s satisfaction guaranteed with this unpretentious two-hour labor of love. A homespun charmer, to cite praise I’ve used before, it’s powered by people who are good to and for each other. Its solid grasp of our non-negotiable need for a sense of place is trenchantly authentic. Final lure: From “A Ring Around the Moon” to “Shine,” Jones soars with every song.

A too-temporary fix for 2019 cynicism and disillusionment, The Spitfire Grill discovers a saving humanity in a supposedly dead-end crossroads that urbanites are apt to dismiss. No way. As the titles put it, when you “Come Alive Again,” you’re “Way Back Home.”

photos by Michael Brosilow

The Spitfire Grill
American Blues Theater
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Thurs & Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 2:30; Wed at 2:30 & 7:30 (Aug. 14 only)
ends on August 17, 2019
for tickets, call 773.654.3103 or visit American Blues Theater

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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