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Small-Town Letdown

The Spitfire Grill never catches fire

Stages Repertory Theatre's production of The Spitfire Grill could be fine holiday fare. James Valcq and Fred Alley's folksy melodrama may be a little morose at the beginning, but it ends up as sappy and sweet as a sugar plum. Based on Lee David Zlotoff's film, the story features an ex-con who rides into Gilead, Wisconsin, one wintry night and proceeds to redeem herself and everyone around her. As the town's secrets unravel, your heart is supposed to swell.

The cast of characters is sweetly melancholic. There's the sorrowful ex-jailbird trying to make a brand-new life for herself. She gets a job at the Spitfire Grill, which is run by an elderly mother who's never gotten over the loss of her child. And down the way is a lonely wife who lives under the hard thumb of her flinty-eyed husband. Dickens himself couldn't have come up with a more woebegone but well-deserving lot. Even better, all this misery is set against the bucolic landscape of the beautifully wooded small town of Gilead.

In other words, the show is filled with ingredients that should make for a perfect night of holiday Hallmark-style theater -- the kind that could warm the cold cockles of the saddest December heart. But somehow the embers of this Grill never catch fire. And this show, which is so rich with potential heat, ends up going down like a cup of tepid tea.

We first meet the ex-con Percy (Holland Vavra) as she's released from jail. She stands in shadowy light surrounded by guards, singing about her dreams. In prison, she found a picture of Gilead in a magazine and decided she wanted the small-town, big-tree life. She arrives in Gilead, suitcase in hand, and speaks with Sheriff Joe Sutter (Brandon Peters), the only lawman in town. He turns out to be a very nice guy. Good thing, too. He's in charge of Percy's parole, and he finds her a job and a room to sleep in at the Spitfire.

Run by Hannah Ferguson (Sylvia Froman), an old battle-ax if ever there was one, the grill is a shabby affair with broken stools and torn upholstery, but it's the only place to eat in town, so everybody goes there. Among the patrons are a nosy gossip named Effy (Jennie Welch) and Hannah's cranky nephew Calab (Thomas Prior), who takes out most of his bitterness on his mousy, bespectacled wife, Shelby (Kaytha Coker).

In Act I, we learn that Gilead is no heaven. Everyone in this godforsaken place feels wretched. And apparently, all their trouble goes back to the Vietnam War, when old Hannah's son went MIA. Since his disappearance, nobody's recovered.

This plot device is a slender and sentimental thread to build a show around. But with the right cast, it could work, especially since Valcq's homespun music, laced with the aching sounds of a country fiddle, is so beautifully rendered. But the cast at Stages never fully embraces the grief these sad characters feel. And as directed by Brad Dalton, there's a tentative, hand-wringing reserve to the production that undermines the emotional extravagance of the story and music.

These performers, who have done lovely work in other shows around town, have a tendency to stand about the stage rather stiffly with their hands held at their sides, singing straight out to the audience. Especially bland is Vavra's Percy. With her tough-girl jeans and deliberately mousy hair, Vavra certainly looks the part. But this young actor never ignites enough passion or rage on the stage to make us believe that Percy has suffered as much as she has. And in the second act, when the ex-con reveals why she was sent to prison in the first place and what motivates her angry outbursts, the scene fails to develop the emotional depth needed to ground this tremulous tale.

Even the technical aspects of the show lack conviction. Tom Boyd's set, with its cutout trees and homespun rotating diner, is big and brown and looks, most of all, empty and cavernous. The band is hidden from the audience -- an odd choice, considering how gorgeous some of these tunes are. Even the stagehands who come out during the intermission to clean up the stage look tired as they kick scraps of paper across the stage. Most theaters break out the sappy productions during the holidays. But in this show, the gooey stuff never gets a chance to flow.

 
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