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The Spitfire Grill

Apple Tree Theatre

I live less than a mile from the house where I was born, send my kids to the same public schools I attended, and run into old high school–kindergarten!–friends on a regular basis. So I guess I know what it means to belong to a particular place. My wife came here from New York but feels a thousand times more attached to our home and neighbors than I’ve ever even thought to feel; periodically she’ll remind me of certain landmarks, like Lake Michigan, that may have slipped my mind. So I know what it means to adopt a particular place too. And more, I know something about the symbiosis between those who belong and those who adopt: how one can cure the loneliness of the other, how the other can refresh the consciousness of the one. Maybe that’s why I was moved by the Apple Tree Theatre production of The Spitfire Grill, even though in most respects it was awfully pat.

A musical based on the 1996 film by writer-director Lee David Zlotoff, The Spitfire Grill is, as much as anything, about belonging and adopting.

Percy (short for “Perchance,” oddly enough, as in “perchance to dream”) has spent the last five years “buried alive” in a women’s prison. Paroled, she heads straight for Gilead, Wisconsin–a dead little backwater outside Prairie du Chien–just because it looked good in a picture she cut out of a travel book. The local sheriff finds Percy work and board at the eponymous diner, and the citizenry take note. Effy, the town gossip, is immediately on the phone weaving fictions about the newcomer. Brooding Caleb–a dispossessed prince of Gilead–eyes her warily. Hannah, the crusty old widow who owns the Spitfire, is initially wary as well–but warms, of course, as Percy’s simple virtues become apparent.

As it happens, Hannah wants to sell the Spitfire. Percy suggests a contest: folks send in $100 and an essay, and the best essay wins the restaurant. Hannah–her crust coming off in great floes by now–allows herself to be convinced. The entries pour in from all over, and the volume is such that pretty soon everybody in town is reading about why some single mother or downsized manager or disillusioned urbanite thinks Gilead would be the ideal place to build a new life. The enthusiasm of these strangers infects the natives, and they begin to feel a new appreciation for who, what, and where they are. Meanwhile Percy, the agent of this transformation, undergoes a transformation of her own–finding the balm in Gilead, as it were.

If this synopsis makes The Spitfire Grill sound a little too sweet to be true, well, then I’ve done my job. Gilead’s a lot closer to Grover’s Corners than it is to Yoknapatawpha County. The authors, James Valcq and Fred Alley, buy unreservedly into the redemptive mystique of small-town America. No one’s so lost here that he can’t be found, so broken he can’t be fixed, so alone he can’t belong. The iron logic of the happy ending makes pretty much everything predictable. When Caleb browbeats his passive wife, Shelby, at the beginning of the show, we’re sure that with Percy’s help she’ll be making a healthy assertion of her individuality by the second act; and as soon as we catch a glimpse of the silent hermit of the woods, we know he’ll end up cozy at home. Even Valcq’s folk-influenced songs tend to build toward Springsteen-like crescendos of redemption.

Though The Spitfire Grill has all the cloying traits of a feel-good show, it made me feel good anyway. Under Eileen Boevers’s unpretentious direction–and surrounded by the warmth of J. Branson’s woody, impossibly picturesque set–Percy’s transit from alien to citizen has texture enough to make up for its inevitability. Her growing friendships with Shelby and Hannah, her recovery from great trauma, her increasing joy and generosity are all at once so sweet and gritty that I was disinclined to dwell on the question of whether they seemed true–whether anyone who’s been through what Percy’s been through would in fact make such a beeline for the light.

It helps that, as Percy, Megan Van De Hey mitigates the brightness of her country-plaintive tones with the occasional growl. It also helps that Susie McMonagle gives Shelby a wonderfully sweet-voiced strength. But most of all it helps that Mary Ann Thebus is so indomitably present as Hannah. Talk about belonging! Though her singing was thin on opening night, Thebus projected a profound authority born of her decades onstage. There’s an offhandedness to certain truly accomplished performances–Marlon Brando chasing his grandson through the tomato vines in The Godfather comes to mind. Acting, as such, ceases to exist. The actor seems simply to be there, being here. Belonging. That’s exactly how I felt about Thebus’s Hannah.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.