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August 27, 2014

Theatre review: Cast is cooking with compassion in 'The Spitfire Grill'

With homespun charm, a small cast depicts rural life, struggles and redemption in the intimate, patchwork-quilt musical "The Spitfire Grill."

It's set in Gilead, Wis. Each character is unfortunately a Midwestern stereotype that bogs down the material in cliches. However, Insight Theatre Company's six-person ensemble is a plucky one, infusing their characters with strong convictions. They comfortably enhance this folksy slice-of-life tale.

Percy Talbot (Sam Auch) is a young woman hurt by tragedy and holding on to a dream for a better life. A prison parolee, she is looked down upon as white trash by the town busybody, Effy (Amy Loui), who happens to be the postmistress and operator of the only general store. The comical Loui, a gifted actress, gets broader as the play unfolds.

Auch has a sweet disposition masking a troubled soul, and an earnest soprano showcased in the opening number "Ring Around the Moon," immediately gaining our empathy.

She is given a job by Hannah (Janet Wells), who has been trying to sell the diner but to no avail. Customers include the lonely bachelor sheriff, (Pete Winfrey) and her nephew Caleb (Troy Turnipseed), an angry chauvinist who doesn't like his wife's growing friendship with Percy. But Shelby is kind, and wants to help Percy start anew, despite her husband's resentment. Then there is "The Visitor," a shadowy figure in the woods, played by Paul Balfe.

Percy comes up with a raffle idea to find someone who would take good care of the cafe, and essays pour in from all over the country, with a wide spectrum of people expressing desires to begin again, to take care of family and to find their own piece of paradise.

"The Spitfire Grill" started out as an independent film in 1996, earning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. It became the subject matter for an off-Broadway musical by in 2001, displacing its Maine setting and changing the ending to a more upbeat one.

The music by the late Fred Alley is a melodic combination of bluegrass, folk and country, and at times seems repetitive, but features intricate harmonies. The best songs are about hope, reflected in James Valcq's heartfelt lyrics. Catherie Kopff capably handled the music direction.

The cast's vocal strengths vary, with some stronger actors than singers. Standout numbers include the locals on "Ice and Snow," capturing the hearty resolve of dealing with harsh winters, with inventive staging too; the Auch-Winfrey duet "These Wide Woods" and the robust first-act closer "Shoot the Moon." Auch and Ryan are superb in their poignant duet "The Colors of Paradise."

Native Wisconsinites, both Alley and Valcq wrote the book, based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff ("Macguyver"). The economic struggles of a small town are identifiable, as are the characters' heartaches. Percy isn't the only one empowered in the play, and that inspiring aspect is what makes this show appealing. Insight's production is its regional debut.

Maggie Ryan has directed her daughter (Ryan) and granddaughter (Auch) with confidence and compassion, and the company focuses on connecting through its starting over theme. Ryan is quite strong as the mild-mannered woman finding her independent voice.

The rustic set design by Kyra Bishop is nicely detailed, and the lighting design by Jeff Behm is very effective with change of seasons, day into night and dusk to dawn, adding depth to the production.

Like a fire on a cold dark winter evening, "The Spitfire Grill" succeeds in spreading warmth in abundance.

"The Spitfire Grill"

Who: Insight Theatre Company

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, 530 East Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves

Tickets: 314-556-1293;

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