Insight Theatre's 'The Spitfire Grill' Tells a Story of Redemption

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

“It’s about redemption,” Director Maggie Ryan says about “The Spitfire Grill,” Insight Theatre’s latest production. “It’s about being able to turn your own life around, as well as the lives of everybody you come in contact with.” As what might be classified as a feel-good play, critics have called “The Spitfire Grill” “uplifting” and “a joyous experience.” With all the bad news coming from around the globe and around the corner, St. Louisans can use a dose of redemption right about now, along with a booster shot of “feel good.”

"The Spitfire Grill' is at Insight Theatre from August 21--31.  Courtesy Insight Theatre

“The Spitfire Grill’ is at Insight Theatre from August 21–31.
Courtesy Insight Theatre

The musical—by James Valcq and Fred Alley—is adapted from the 1996 film of the same name by Lee David Zlotoff, featuring a folksy score to help tell the story of Percy Talbott, who arrives in the rural town of Gilead, Wisconsin after having spent five years in prison. She doesn’t know anyone who lives there, having picked the town simply because of an idyllic picture she saw in a magazine. But Gilead isn’t so idyllic—it’s an economically depressed, end-of-the-road kind of place. The typical storyline would have you expecting it to be Percy who finds redemption in Gilead, but it’s the other characters and the town itself that will be redeemed through Percy. “The characters all have problems they’re dealing with and they find ways to overcome them,” Ryan says.

For Ryan, the surprising challenge of mounting the show was the unexpected complexity of the music, especially the rhythms and unusual harmonies. Music Director Katherine Edwards Kopff directed the orchestra and singers through the score; a blend of folk, country and bluegrass. Although there aren’t any hit songs from the show, some of the more well-known songs include “Colors of Paradise,” “Wild Bird,” and “Shine,” all of which undoubtedly contributed to the show’s winning the coveted Richard Rodgers Award, named for the famous American composer (“Oklahoma,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music,” etc.)

The production is a bit of a family affair. Ryan’s daughter, Jenny Ryan, is in the show, and her daughter (Maggie Ryan’s granddaughter) Samantha Auch, is playing the lead character Percy. Moreover, Ryan has coaxed her friend, actress Janet Wells, with whom Ryan graduated from Webster University, to come from Atlanta to play Hannah, the crusty owner of the Spitfire Grill.

As a special event, following the Sunday, Aug. 24, 2pm matinee, there will be an audience talkback led by Prison Performing Arts (since the heroine Percy is fresh out of prison), which for 22 years has worked with prisoners, former prisoners and incarcerated youth building what the organization calls their “Second Act” through engagement with the arts. PPA was founded by Artistic Director Agnes Wilcox.

For all the things “The Spitfire Grill” has going for it as a theater piece, right now its most salable point might be its feel-good quality. “There’s a sense of real joy at the end of the show,” Ryan says. And we could all use a sense of real joy.

“The Spitfire Grill” opens tonight, Thursday, Aug. 21, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 31. For tickets and information visit the Insight Theatre website.

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