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, vintagetheatre.org.
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