Colonial Players’ The Spitfire Grill

Slow change and a bit of redemption in Gilead, Wisconsin

The Spitfire Grill is a musical about redemption that isn’t preachy. Written by James Valcq (book and music) and Fred Alley (book and lyrics) it is a musical with only one dance number, albeit a very effective one. It has a comedic touch yet only a few laugh-out-loud lines. It has one powerful song about frustration, made so by the actor who sings it. Its storyline and ending are a bit contrived,  yet there is charm in setting and characters. What to make of this play?
    The storyline revolves around Percy, newly freed after a stint in jail, who moves to Gilead, Wisconsin, drawn there by a newspaper account of the beautiful fall colors. But Gilead is a town dying after the mines closed up. That’s why Hannah has been trying to sell the Spitfire Grill for 10 years. When Percy comes to town, Sheriff Joe gets her a job at the Spitfire Grill. Later, when Hannah breaks her hip, Percy takes charge of the grill and is helped by Shelby, whose husband is Caleb, Hannah’s nephew. There is the ubiquitous small-town nosy postmistress and a character who lives in the woods to round out the cast.
    Director Joan Townshend assembled a strong and cohesive group of actors and maintains good pacing for the action. Music direction by Anita O’Connor is excellent, and the musicians (sadly, uncredited) provide a strong, beautiful base for the actor/singers. The actors occasionally seemed to be straining to sing in their range, and on opening night there were some tonal lapses. But those seemed only opening-night nerves.
    Karen Grim does vocal and performance justice to Percy, a wounded character who calls herself a wild bird. Eric Hufford grows as Sheriff Joe through the course of the show. Jill Sharpe Compton manages to be both strong and funny as Hannah. Robert Wright as The Visitor from the woods is a mute presence. Jean Berard gives a funny performance as Effy, the postmistress, in a style that is a bit broader than the production’s norm.
    The couple, Caleb and Shelby, provide the most internal conflict. Lawrence Griffin as Caleb and Sandra Rardon as Shelby are the standouts of the show, in part because of writing, in part because of what they bring to the roles. Griffin sings the haunting “Digging Stone.” He seems to strain to stay in vocal range, and that very task gives the song power and poignancy and a profoundly haunting quality. Shelby’s change comes as she moves from shy, unassuming wife to competent, capable woman. Rardon makes both the beginning and the end of that journey believable.
    Drama is about change, about the transition a character makes from beginning to end. Interestingly, in The Spitfire Grill the only character to make a complete journey is Shelby. Percy, Sheriff Joe and Hannah come to accept aspects of themselves they have previously ignored. Caleb seems on the verge of change, but it isn’t yet seen.  Perhaps that is why the script of The Spitfire Grill seems a bit slight, despite the effectiveness and strong staging by Colonial Players.
    What to make of this play? Good performances and music, clear direction and a good cast counter any slights and make for a worthwhile and enjoyable evening at the theater.

    Director: Joan Townshend. Music director: Anita O’Connor. Stage manager: Andy McLendon. Lighting designer: Harvey Hack. Costume designer: Jeannie Beall. Set designer: Beth Terranova. Sound designer: Richard Atha-Nicholls. Properties: Lois Banscher.
    Playing thru April 21 at 8pm ThFSa; 2pm Su; 7:30pm April 1 at Colonial Players, 108 East St., Annapolis. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.cplayers.com.