Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Zeke Dolezalek
Sometimes, these days, it seems as if we’re spiraling down some dark path with no real hope of salvation or redemption. (Yes, I do know the irony of making that statement on Easter Sunday.) But every once in a while, some play comes along that reignites that spark of hope in our hearts. Refuge Theatre Project has found just such a show for its current production, the sixteen-year-old musical that dares us to believe that, no matter how dark it gets, we can still find a way to shine. Spitfire Grill, by James Valcq and Fred Alley, was first presented off-Broadway on October 2, 2001, only three weeks after 9/11 had devastated the nation. At the time, critics lauded its message of renewal and rebirth; it feels equally necessary today.
Refuge Theatre Project is known for staging plays in found spaces. (Its last show, Lysistrata Jones, about basketball players and cheerleaders, was staged in a gymnasium.) For Spitfire Grill, it has found an equally apt location: the Windy City Cafe, a breakfast and lunch place that now serves as the backdrop for this show about a small town diner and the people who find grace and expiation there.
The show’s main character is Percy Talbot (Lauren Paris), a twenty-something West Virginian woman who has spent the last five years in jail and now, having gotten out, seeks to start over. Based on a photo from a travel brochure, she picks the (mythical) town of Gilead, Wisconsin because she longs to see the “colors of paradise” etched into the leaves of its trees. But Gilead, as it turns out, is practically a ghost town, and the town’s only restaurant, where she seeks employment, is dying along with it. Though everyone in town eventually comes there, the owner, Hannah (Katherine Condit), has been trying unsuccessfully to unload the place for ten years. Percy comes up with the notion that Hannah should “shoot the moon” by holding a lottery of sorts: send in a $100 entry fee and an essay saying why you want the Grill and it might be yours. Soon letters are overwhelming the tiny town’s post office (and its gossip-mongering postal officer, Effy (Nicole Michelle Haskins), and the contest is on.
There is nothing in this show that will particularly surprise you, from Sheriff Joe (Alex Crist) who falls for Percy to the ultimate resolution of the contest, but that is not the point. Here we are focused on life at its darkest: Percy is broken by her years in prison and feels unworthy of the good life she so desperately desires. Hannah has failed to overcome the depression caused by her son’s missing status after the war. Caleb (Gerald Richardson) has spent a decade competing with the ghost of that son, the town’s golden boy, and takes his frustrations out on his wife Shelby, a perpetually positive person played by Emily Goldberg. And it is the middle of winter: with so much ice and snow and nothing growing, the town feels absolutely dead.
Director Christopher Pazdernik utilizes the limited space of the Windy City Cafe beautifully, aided by a clever though minimal lighting plot by Collin Helou. Backed by the acoustic music of Jon Schneidman, the singers fill the cafe with their strong voices. (Goldberg’s in particular is lovely.) Never more than a few feet from the audience, the cast brings out the power of the big numbers as well as the softness of the nearly whispered moments as we wish harder and harder that the “wild bird” Percy can learn to nest in this little hamlet.
It may not be a show full of surprises, but it is one full of sincere emotion. From Paris’s plaintive opening number, “A Ring Around the Moon,” to Condit’s “Forgotten Lullaby,” we get to know all of these people through the songs they sing, and combined they help us to understand the town. Haskins provides the comic relief for the most part, but there are moments when even Effy is moved by what is going on here. And Caleb is not simply a villain; he is afforded an opportunity to explore his own lost life in “Digging Stone,” a tribute to the quarry that has shut down and the men who worked there. By the end, the town has “come alive again” in every possible way, and those who felt most adrift find acceptance, peace and love. And we who are watching are reminded that there is always a summer after the winter, that hope is possible even in the darkest of times.
Spitfire Grill is a Refuge Theatre Project production now playing at the Windy City Cafe, 1062 W Chicago Ave in Chicago, until May 5. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from Refuge Theatre Project. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.