Review: Insight Theatre's 'The Spitfire Grill' Serves Up A Meaty Dish

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

What’s a girl just released from prison supposed to do? If you’re Percy Talbot—the pivotal character in “The Spitfire Grill,” currently playing at Insight Theatre Company—you move to a small rural Wisconsin town, get a job at the town diner, and proceed to change the lives of everyone you come into contact with, from the town sheriff to the hermit who lives in the woods. Based on the 1996 film of the same name by Lee Zlotoff, this folksy musical version offers a surprisingly complex score, rich character development, and a compelling story that belies its humble surroundings—then again, where better to play out a story of redemption than a small town diner?

Janet Wells (Hannah Ferguson), Troy Turnipseed (Caleb Thorpe) and Jenni Ryan (Shelby Thorpe) Photo Credit: John Lamb — with Janet Wells, Troy Turnipseed and Jenni Ryan at Insight Theatre Company.

Janet Wells (Hannah Ferguson), Troy Turnipseed (Caleb Thorpe) and Jenni Ryan (Shelby Thorpe)
Photo John Lamb

Percy (Sam Auch) chose the town based on an idyllic picture she saw in a magazine, but quickly learns that the town’s bucolic appearance masks its deteriorating soul. Ever since the quarry shut down, the town has been in a sink hole—economically and psychologically. There is bitterness, anger, denial, and suspicion among the diner regulars—a veritable blue-plate special of dysfunction. Percy isn’t exactly singing “Happy” either.

The catalyst for change comes when Percy learns that Hannah (Janet Wells), the gruff owner of the Spitfire Grill, has been trying to sell it, and suggests that instead of trying to sell the grill, Hannah give it away in a contest. Each entrant must write why they think they should get the diner. It’s through the reading of the submitted essays—full of hopes and dreams and optimism—that the characters begin the journey toward confronting their shortcomings and changing their collective attitude. Essentially, the town becomes very much like the one Percy imagined in her head when she first looked at the photo.

Pete Winfrey (Joe Sutter) and Sam Auch (Percy Talbott) Photo Credit: John Lamb — with Pete Winfrey at Insight Theatre Company.

Pete Winfrey (Joe Sutter) and Sam Auch (Percy Talbott)
Photo Credit: John Lamb

Auch is confident and strong yet vulnerable as Percy, all necessary ingredients for an appropriate heroine. She also demonstrates her singing chops on her first song, the lyrical and haunting, “A Ring Around the Moon.” Wells, as diner-owner Hannah, walks a fine line between her rough exterior and her tarnished heart of gold underneath. Pete Winfrey as sheriff Joe Sutter has a down-home, easy-going charm, and in spite of the cliché of the sheriff and the ex-con as the romantic interests, Winfrey and Auch offer up some intriguing and delightful courtship scenes. Winfrey’s singing performance also stands out.

Jenni Ryan (Shelby Thorpe) and Sam Auch (Percy Talbott)  Photo Credit: John Lamb

Jenni Ryan (Shelby Thorpe) and Sam Auch (Percy Talbott)
Photo Credit: John Lamb

Jenni Ryan is formidable in the role of Shelby Thorpe, who comes to help out in the diner when Hannah gets injured in a nasty fall. Shelby gets freed from her own type of prison through her relationship with Percy. Ryan also proves herself as a singer. Troy Turnipseed play Shelby’s overbearing, over-protective husband Caleb, whose objection and poor treatment of Shelby are a thin veneer hiding his insecurity. Amy Loui plays nosey mailman and town busybody Effy Krayneck, who serves up most of the comic relief in the show, and Michael Brightman plays the mysterious resident of the woods, who is interesting in spite of not having lines.

Amy Loui (Effy Krayneck) and Janet Wells (Hannah Ferguson)  Photo Credit: John Lamb

Amy Loui (Effy Krayneck) and Janet Wells (Hannah Ferguson)
Photo Credit: John Lamb

Maggie Ryan’s direction is sure-handed, and she uses Kyra Bishop’s fantastic, sprawling set to its fullest advantage. (On a side note, cast members Jenny Ryan and Sam Auch are director Ryan’s daughter and granddaughter.) Jeff Behm’s lighting is effective, and Tracy Newcomb’s costumes fit the town and the people’s characters. The score, written by James Valco and Fred Alley, is a complicated one, and it’s handled adroitly by musical director Catherine Kopff and the crackerjack orchestra (who play from backstage unseen). Some cast members are not singers and mostly “talk” their parts, which partly works and partly doesn’t. When these characters do need to sing, they leave a little to be desired.

Ultimately, “The Spitfire Grill” is a tale of redemption, yes, but it also proposes that happiness is a choice. A difficult choice sometimes, but a choice nevertheless.

“The Spitfire Grill” continues at Insight Theatre through Aug. 31. For tickets and information visit the Insight Theatre website.

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