Big Hearts Trump Small Minds in Deft ‘Spitfire Grill’

The Spitfire Grill’s Western Sandwich will run you $3.95 cash money, and everything else (including the eatery’s fortunes) has followed suit. Thanks to two indefatigable souls, this ramshackle greasy spoon will soon hit its stride amid its spiffy new prices and a heaping side of goodwill — a tall order in critically backwater Gilead, Wisc., which has a population of like 9 and a half.

Other than the diner, gossip is the town’s anchor industry, to wit: Percy Talbott’s arrival in this dusky outpost is the biggest news to hit the area since the quarry closed ten years ago.

The mess at the diner is no match for the surge at the spirits of Shelby Thorpe (Meghan Andrews) and Percy Talbott (Aurora Florence). Photos by Aaron Rumley.

Percy (birth name Perchance) will prove herself in due course in The Spitfire Grill, the latest musical mount from North Coast Repertory Theatre. She and Shelby Thorpe will rejuvenate the restaurant’s mood even as owner Hannah Ferguson puts her mind to letting it go, like she’s wanted to do for years — meantime, composer James Valcq and librettist Fred Alley serve up a story that’s as light on utility as it is heavy on redemption.

The hit-and-miss script will throw up a bump or two, but on its way to the end, you’re sure to like what you see.

The thing about Percy is that she served a five-year stint at Taycheedah Prison in the death of a stepfather who raped her at 16 and later killed her fetus. Sheriff Joe Sutter will step in, setting her up with a job at the Spitfire and a place to stay — but crusty ol’ Hannah is a tough nut to crack, and the newbie has her work cut out. Percy and Shelby are undeterred, stepping in to run the Spitfire amid an injury to Hannah’s hip.

From there unfolds a story of forgiveness, rediscovery and upheaval in Gilead and in the residents’ lives.

While the plot points are succinctly and uniformly laid out, they don’t always seem to follow a logical sequence.

Shelby’s rocky marriage to Caleb (who’s still rankled over his ancient termination at the quarry); Sutter’s proposal to Percy; Hannah’s dark family secret; the ingeniousness behind the plan to unload the grill; the town busybody’s effort to badmouth Percy: While the plot points are succinctly and uniformly laid out, they don’t always seem to follow a logical sequence.

Sutter’s offer of marriage comes out of nowhere even as Alley neglects to include old friend Hannah’s counsel on the matter. Without warning, the once-dispirited grill is the picture of conviviality as the second act begins. The grill regulars are introduced frontally, without any substories of their own at first. Valcq and Alley rush into their ideas once they devise them, neglecting to develop the connective tissue that would burnish the story’s progression.

Beyond that, there’s lots of substance here, chiefly illustrated in everybody’s believability. Director Jeffrey B. Moss has a very nicely typecast piece, with its core features ranging from The Visitor’s (Matt Thompson) dog-eared mien to Percy’s (Aurora Florence) unlikely good looks in the face of her roily past. Devlin (just Devlin) markedly succeeds as hard-boiled Hannah, whose concrete shell covers the open sore that is her heart (Devlin sounds a lot like Rosemary Clooney and even kind of looks like her from a distance; embrace the moment amid her striking “Way Back Home”).

Meghan Andrews’ Shelby is as down-home as her befuddled husband Caleb (Kevin Bailey), while Kevin Earley shows how Sutter’s incorruptible sense of duty propelled him up the ranks so quickly. And please do enjoy Maggie Carney as town scandalmonger Effy Krayneck. Carney plays Effy like the gravelly little pistol she is, nose in the air and ear to the ground lest some dirty outsider plot against Gilead’s predictable way of life. Great work.

With ‘Way Back Home,’ everything comes together between Hannah Ferguson (Devlin) and The Visitor (Matt Thompson).

Everybody’s in pretty good voice, although Florence’s is a tad immature (“Ring around the Moon”) and Earley sets off a few seismometers when it isn’t necessary (“Forest for the Trees”). Alby Potts’ musical direction is steady and seasoned behind Marty Burnett’s cartographic set design and an OK tech effort (but why does Andrea Gutierrez use the same props in the diner’s transition from rags to riches?).

Despite everybody’s best efforts, errors in a play’s development only grow, becoming more apparent against excellent backdrops like this one. Faults aside, this show captivates amid its workmanship and its cast’s unwavering belief in itself and its product. I’ve watched a few better plays, but I’ve also seen much, much worse.

This review is based on the opening-night production of June 3. The Spitfire Grill runs through July 2 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. $48-$53., 858-481-1055.

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North Coast Repertory Theatre
987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Suite D Solana Beach CA 92075 USA Work Phone: (858) 481-1055 Website: North Coast Repertory Theatre website
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