By Dale King
The Spitfire Grill, the lively contemporary musical that completes its two-weekend run at the Studio One Theatre on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on Sunday, is not a humorous show, despite the up-tempo, often knee-slapping rhythm of its score and an aw-shucks ending that drops on the audience like the plummeting temperature of a February day in rural Wisconsin.
Grad students in FAU’s Department of Theatre and Dance have chosen a relatively well-received, award-winning Off-Broadway show as its penultimate production of the 2016-2017 season. The young actors deftly handle the dialogue and the vocals, but the plot gets tangled up in mid-play silliness, and the “happily ever after” ending arrives with little warning.
The 2001 show, based on a book by James Valcq (who later wrote the music) and Fred Alley (who added the lyrics), is drawn from the 1996 film of the same name by Lee David Zlotoff.
The musical depicts the journey of a young woman, Percy Talcott (Madison Spear), just released from prison after serving a five-year sentence. She decides to start her life anew in a backwoods Wisconsin town named Gilead. It isn’t long before her trek parallels the tenuous reawakening of this woodsy community and its citizenry.
Basically, the community is full of people looking to get out of Gilead. Hannah Ferguson (Rachel Finley), owner of the resolute, old Spitfire Grill, is first on the list. She’s been selling the place for 10 years without a taker.
Percy gets a waitressing job at the Spitfire, but soon has to take over operations when Hannah falls on the stairs and breaks a leg.
This sets the town’s wheels turning. We meet Sheriff Joe Sutter (Zak Westfall), who is not only Percy’s parole officer, but the local marshal and soon-to-be love interest.
Percy gets help running the Spitfire from Shelby (Gabriela Tortoledo), whose husband, Caleb (Sean Patrick Gibbons), seems to be the town curmudgeon.
Then there’s Effy (Jessica Eaton), the local postmistress who is the town’s snoop and gossip (“Something’s Cooking at the Spitfire Grill”). Amid the swirling chatter, Percy wonders if she’s made a mistake coming to Gilead (“Coffee Cups and Gossip”).
Mystery also surrounds the town. Hannah demands that a loaf of bread be left outside at night for an unknown “visitor.” Percy keeps her crime a secret, but when she finally admits she murdered her father after enduring his abuse for years, there’s little outcry.
Music – most of it fine, foot-tapping tunes slightly reminiscent of Oklahoma — keeps the dissatisfaction in town from boiling over. As citizens watch winter give way to spring (“Ice and Snow”), the women at the Spitfire plan the details of a sell-the-Spitfire contest. Send in $100 and an essay about why you’d like to acquire the Grill – and you could win it. Tunes like “The Colors of Paradise” and “Shoot the Moon” keep this spirit going.
The contest – which goes on through spring, summer and into the following autumn – puts the town on the map as media around the nation discover it. People begin to realize that Gilead isn’t so bad after all. Contact with the outside world through batches of contest letters brings Gileadeans new appreciation of their town and neighbors.
Actually, this may be the unspoken tie-in to Gilead. A mountainous region of ancient Palestine, Gilead, in the Old Testament, refers to spiritual medication that can save sinners. In the New Testament, the so-called “balm in Gilead” alludes to salvation through Christ.
Even Spitfire Grill director Lynn McNutt mentions the “theme of redemption” in this play. “Every character in the show, as well as the town itself, goes through a process of healing and rebirth. Though not religious in nature, the themes are quite spiritual and universally appealing.”
An assistant professor, McNutt adroitly handles directorial chores. Scenic designer K. April Soroko excellently captures in stage settings the beauty of seasonal changes in the Wisconsin woods. This splendor is underscored in songs such as “A Ring around the Moon.”
Turning in a top-notch performance, Gibbons portrays Caleb with unbridled passion. At first, we think he might be abusing his wife, but it turns out he’s lost his sense of self and dignity when his job at the quarry ended.
Finley fills her role of Hannah with intensity, humanity and life experience. Her stifled maternal instinct comes alive when her sad secret is revealed — and the visitor is identified. Effy — played with delightful self-absorption by Eaton — is shown to have real empathy, suggesting her nosiness might result from a need for human companionship.
The Spitfire Grill concludes with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday at FAU’s Studio One Theatre on the first floor of the University Theatre on the Boca Raton campus. Call 561-297-6124 for tickets and information.