It’s your basic girl-meets-town story. Percy’s spent five years “buried alive” in prison. Paroled, she heads straight for Gilead, Wisconsin–a backwater outside Prairie du Chien–just because it looks good in a picture. The sheriff finds her a job at the eponymous diner, and the citizenry takes note. Hannah, the crusty old widow who owns the Spitfire, is initially wary too–but warms to Percy’s simple virtues. 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 persuaded. The entries pour in, and pretty soon everybody in town is reading about why some single mother or downsized manager 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 herself–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. James Valcq and Fred Alley, the authors of this musical based on the 1996 film, buy unreservedly into the redemptive mystique of small-town America. No one’s so lost here that he can’t be found, so broken that he can’t be fixed, so alone that he can’t belong. Even Valcq’s folk-influenced songs tend to build toward Springsteen-like crescendos of redemption. But 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, Percy’s transit from alien to citizen has texture enough to more than make up for its inevitability. It helps that, as Percy, Megan Van De Hey mitigates the brightness of her country-plaintive tones with the occasional growl. And Mary Ann Thebus is indomitably present as Hannah. Though her singing is thin, Thebus projects a profound authority born of her decades onstage. There’s an offhandedness to certain truly accomplished performances: the actor seems simply to be there, being here. That’s how it is with Thebus. Apple Tree Theatre, 595 Elm Pl., Highland Park, 847-432-4335. Through December 22: Wednesdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 5 and 8:30 PM; Sundays, 3 and 7 PM. $33-$38.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.