The haunting opening solo “Ring Around the Moon,” sung evocatively by Mary Kate Malone-Nolte as Percy Talbott, immediately established this show has something to say in an interesting, simple and simply beautiful way.
Percy, a new prison parolee, pulled me into her hope for solace and redemption in nature based on a picture she’d torn from a travel book with a caption depicting Gilead, Wisconsin, her post-prison destination. Not knowing Gilead is now only a shell of a town after the closure of the town quarry in the post Vietnam era, Percy arrives in winter when the color’s gone-from everything . . . except some birch and suggested evergreens that back the rustic wooden unit set that encompasses the grill’s interior and its surroundings, effectively designed by the show’s director Diana Enloe.
Percy’s parole officer Joe Sutter, played convincingly by John Kuehn (with the most memorable singing voice in “This Wide Woods”) directs her to the only place in town where she might get a meal, a bed and a job: The Spitfire Grill, owned by a seemingly unfeeling widow Hannah Ferguson, created with curmudgeonly contralto charm by Pamela Geppert. Hannah doesn’t want the help, reluctantly accepts it, but comes to need and even appreciate it after a fall incapacitates her. Unfortunately Percy can’t cook.
Hannah’s nephew Caleb (Steve Loucks) resents and distrusts Percy, especially after his mouse of a wife Shelby (Debbie Maneke) - who can cook - joins Percy in keeping the Spitfire humming while Hannah recuperates. Their growing friendship inspires Shelby to become her own person while further emasculating Caleb, a victim of the town’s economic downturn. Real-life husband and wife, Loucks and Maneke add fine voices to both ensemble and solo songs, but Maneke’s acting depth and vocal richness especially shine in the moving “When Hope Goes” and again in Act II’s “Wild Bird” despite some awkward blocking. When Maneke teams with Malone-Nolte vocally on “The Colors of Paradise,” their complementary voices and characters soar and inspire as they set up the crux of the plot: helping Hannah unload the grill that Caleb’s already had on the market for ten years: an essay-based raffle, where applicants send $100 and an explanation of why they want to win the Spitfire.
To round out the cast of seven, spunky Anne Frakes delights as the busybody postmistress Effy Krayneck and a disheveled Michael Cox haunts as the silent visitor whom Hannah and then Percy periodically feed by the stump outside the grill. Overall, I particularly enjoyed the simplicity of the show, especially in numbers like the ensemble’s “Ice and Snow” that features Kuehn, Loucks and Frakes, subtly changing costumes while providing excellent vocals and percussion with ordinary seasonal implements, simultaneously showing the changing seasons, the growing acceptance of Percy and the evolving plan to advertise the raffle.
At intermission, I went out humming “Shoot the Moon,” the drinking song that ends Act I, a bit fearful the show might turn maudlin. Thankfully it never does. Without cloying sentimentality even with everyone in Gilead becoming a winner, Act II does remind us of our need to connect with and to love ourselves, our families, and our neighbors while appreciating the natural beauty that surrounds us as we determine a direction for ourselves within it.
Wisconsin friends James Valcq and Fred Alley collaborated so cohesively on the book with Valcq providing the music and Alley the lyrics, all beautifully interpreted by Alton’s music director Michael Frazier on the piano ably assisted by four other competent musicians: violinist Michael Pellock, cellist Taylor Smith, guitarist Brian Barrett, and keyboardist Carol Griffith. Ironically and tragically, Alley died of a heart attack while jogging in the Wisconsin woods at the age of 38 just before the show’s Playwrights Horizon Workshop in 2000.
I left the theatre on a mission to find out more about this small folksy musical that’s bound to become a community theatre staple. I must order the CD and memorize Hannah’s “Way Back Home,” Geppert’s most memorable moment, and Percy’s “Shine.” In the latter song, though well sung by Malone-Nolte, Enloe’s staging and lighting only minimally suggested the transformative power of this centerpiece song.
Though not perfect (What is?) all theatrical ingredients blend beautifully in Alton Little Theater’s The Spitfire Grill to serve this memorable ensemble show. Most importantly, ALT’s Grill nurtures the soul.