Review: The Spitfire Grill Is a Slight, Sweet Snack

The plot of The Spitfire Grill, a small-scale musical now at the Vintage Theatre, is in the tradition of those ubiquitous American dramas in which a stranger comes into a small town that’s stuck in time — tradition-bound or dying — and shakes everything up. It’s a story we’ve seen in countless incarnations, from classic Westerns to Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending, in which a haunted young man brings disaster to a Southern community; to Marlon Brando roaring into town with his gang of bikers in The Wild One; to the genial antics of the title figure in The Music Man. In this case, the visitor — unusual for the genre — is female.

As the action begins, Percy is just being released from prison; soon she’s on her way by bus to the fictional town of Gilead in rural Wisconsin, having picked the place because she’d once seen a photograph of trees along a creek near Gilead in a blaze of autumn color.
Joe, the local sheriff, meets her at the bus stop and guides her toward a job at the Spitfire Grill. Despite the fact that the place is quietly decaying, the coffee’s terrible and the owner, Hannah, has been trying to sell it for a decade, everyone eats at the Spitfire because it’s the only dining spot left since the construction of a major new highway bypassed the town. Greeted with suspicion and pretty prickly herself, Percy settles in, calmed by Hannah’s eventual support and her growing friendship with a young townswoman, Shelby.

There are some nice ideas here. The concept of an ex-con returning to society, trying to acclimatize and eventually integrate into the fabric of a close-knit, if weary, community is tantalizing. And things really get rolling when Percy and Shelby come up with an idea for Hannah: They’ll set up a competition. For a hundred-dollar fee, entrants gain a chance to win the Spitfire Grill by writing an essay about why they want to own it and how they’ll run it. A few letters trickle in; eventually there’s a flood. This is a plot development that opens a lot of lively possibilities: The letters, pleading, boasting, practical or dreamy, are read aloud by the three women in song, and they open a window into a slice of American life, providing a bittersweet commentary on the plight of so many people — the loneliness and poverty, the persistence of hope against all odds.

After a while, though, the plot gets predictable — and just a touch too nice. We think at first that Shelby’s husband, Caleb, might be abusive — and he certainly is controlling — but it turns out he’s just a guy who lost his sense of self and dignity when he lost his job, and it doesn’t take a whole lot to turn him around. Hannah has a sad secret, but it isn’t very believably written. And, of course, Joe falls for Percy — and although she rejects him abruptly, the two are soon together. Everything in Gilead is swiftly and neatly resolved. The musical would be a lot more fun if Percy herself were a more complex and checkered character, if she’d gone to prison for something she really did need to atone for. But it turns out she’s just a victim, like most of the sad people around her, and her crime was entirely understandable.

Still, it’s a pleasure watching this musical in an intimate venue, and the folk- and country-inflected score is often appealing. The complex web of music — much of the dialogue is sung rather than spoken — is expertly handled by Megan Van De Hey as Percy. I particularly enjoyed her lively rendition of “Something’s Cooking,” sung as she tries to put together a coffee cake. Kelly Watt, who plays Shelby, has a lovely soprano, which blends beautifully with Van De Hey’s mezzo-soprano on the tender “Wild Bird.” Mark Lively is a strong, attractive Joe, Anne Oberbroeckling a quietly humorous Hannah, and Tom Auclair is effectively understated as Caleb. Effy, the bad-tempered town gossip who eventually reveals a softer and kinder side, is a cliché role, but Nancy Van Vleet makes it real and amusing.

The Spitfire Grill is slight, sweet and sentimental, but there’s a lot to be said for passing a warm summer evening celebrating the healing power of community with the people of Gilead.

The Spitfire Grill, presented by Vintage Theatre Productions through August 16, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830,
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman