I had the South in mind the minute I heard the name "Spitfire Grill," the new musical that opened Saturday night at the Flat Rock Playhouse.
Gotta be some country bumpkins, I figure, in a rustic broken-down diner serving homemade buttermilk biscuits, sawmill gravy, fried chicken and peach cobbler in rural Alabama between old-time and bluegrass tunes backed by some good banjo licks and sweet fiddle.
The rustic diner and fiddle music was the only part I got right. The eponymous Spitfire Grill turns out to be in Gilead, Wisc. But that does not snuff the Southern connection.
The play is Southern all right, thanks to its lead character, Percy Talbott, played by Carey Anderson. Percy has purely by accident settled on relocating to Gilead from prison in Tennessee. A magazine travel piece promised pretty fall colors on a pastoral creek; by the time she steps off a bus in Wisconsin, Sheriff Joe Sutter breaks the news that the creek is frozen and the trees are bare.
My ear is real sensitive to Southern poorly done, so I waited skeptically for Ms. Anderson, a native of Indiana, to snag the dialect and keep it. The only actress I've ever heard consistently nail Southern is Holly Hunter, a native of Conyers, Ga. As Percy, Ms. Anderson channels Holly Hunter, not only getting the right inflection but also getting that peculiar wit that Southern women use to prevent men from intimidating.
Amy Jones directed, and deserves credit for delivering on the subtleties.
Eager to dump Percy on someone he can count on, Sheriff Sutter persuades Spitfire Grill proprietor Hannah Ferguson (Joy Franz) to hire the felon as a waitress and, somewhat disastrously, cook. Percy is joined by Shelby Thorpe, the incumbent waitress, and soon we're introduced to a series of characters. Though somewhat stock, the goodhearted, shy bachelor sheriff, the snoopy postmistress and the stern but decent diner owner all make their parts come alive. Denise Nolin, as the gossipy postmistress, delivers comic relief.
I've seen enough musicals with fine music and not much else — all needle and no thread. What separates "The Spitfire Grill" is the story. Hannah and Percy have secrets, the kind that are stored not so safely in that corner of the soul that always hurts, an ugly old bruise that can only be healed in the telling.
Early on, the ensemble sings "Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill" and I'm thinking the biscuits and banjos can't be far behind. It doesn't take long before the serious side of the story unfolds.
Caleb, Shelby's troubled and abusive husband (Preston Dyar), sees Percy as a threat, and starts digging in to her past. He finds out why she went to prison in Tennessee; we don't, till later.
We don't know what deep hurt weighs on Hannah, nor the identity of the lanky shadowy figure who comes each night to accept a loaf of bread that Hannah leaves by a stump. Nor whether Percy, who seems as huggable as a feral cat, might soften up and respond to Sheriff Sutter's growing affection.
But by intermission we want to know.
A balm in Gilead
I got to thinking about Gilead.
I have no idea what link the filmmaker Lee David Zlotoff (whose film forms the basis of the play) might have made to the biblical Gilead but there seemed to be a case for one. A rugged mountainous region east of the Jordan River, Gilead is said to mean a hill of testimony. That is apropos of the story here. The words of an old traditional African American spiritual seemed to fit, too.
There is balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole ;
There's power enough in heaven,
To cure a sin-sick soul.
I don't mean to imply that the play is preachy at all. It's not. The characters arrive at their own healing and peace, through one another and through their own settlement of conflict, with no outward show of religiosity.
Early in the second act, I was afraid that Percy had lost her accent. She soon regained it, though, and to my relief kept it for the rest of the show.
The music delivered by the wonderful singers gets even better in Act II, especially Shelby's "Wild Bird," Percy's "Shine" and Hannah's "Way Back Home."
That fiddle I counted on (Mariya Potapova), plus Bill Altman's guitar and mandolin, Eric Leach's piano and Jenna McCreery's cello, provide great backup.
In the second act I kept thinking of the Robert Frost line:
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there
They have to take you in."
You'll see why when you go see "The Spitfire Grill," which you ought to go see, if you want to hear some terrific singing, watch resilient women outwrestle their demons and bathe in the healing balm of old bonds and new friends, urged on by a convicted felon with a really big voice — and purty good Southern accent.
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