‘The Spitfire Grill’ Serves Up a Helping of Sweet Redemption

The Spitfire Grill opened off Broadway just after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in that atmosphere its wholesomeness struck a chord with city-dwellers who had been traumatized out of their customary jaded sophistication.

Now in production at Northern Stage, The Spitfire Grill plays rather differently to an audience that, like the musical’s heroine, Perchance “Percy” Talbott, has made a home in t he countryside.

Percy is coming out of prison after serving five years and has followed a picture of fall foliage to its location, the fictional town of Gilead, Wis. She gets off the bus in a crabbed, wintry backwater that’s been bypassed by the new highway and where the main industry, a stone quarry, has shut down. The Spitfire Grill is the town’s lone greasy spoon.

As soon as Percy, played by Amanda Ryan Paige, sets foot in town the scene is set for a story of redemption, forgiveness and love. The nobility of these qualities don’t necessarily make for outstanding drama, as the arc of the play is visible almost in its entirety from the first 10 minutes. The ex-con will learn the values of hard work and community and her skeptical new neighbors will see her worth. The community’s darkness will begin to lift.

And so it goes. Spitfire Grill’s gruff, gimpy proprietor Hannah Ferguson, portrayed with wit and gravity by Susann Fletcher, takes Percy in and puts her to work. She is watched warily by Hannah’s nephew, Caleb Thorpe (Ben Sargent) and town letter carrier and gossip Effy Krayneck (Charis Leos, the redoubtable Northern Stage veteran). Local sheriff Joe Sutter (Kevin David Thomas) serves as Percy’s parole officer.

Hannah has been trying to sell the grill for a decade, and Percy comes up with the idea of an essay contest, one of those in which each entrant sends in $100 and the best essay wins. The bags of letters that come in have a tonic effect.

The production, directed by Catherine Doherty, Northern Stage’s producing director, is as thoroughly professional as the White River Junction theater company’s patrons have come to expect. Thursday night’s performance was a preview, but seemed fully polished.

Even so, the performance I saw was graced with only one fully formed character. As Hannah, Susann Fletcher gives the role a physical and vocal dimension and clarity that none of her castmates could match. Her strong, slightly reedy singing voice also packs an emotional punch.

The songs of The Spitfire Grill are sweet and heartfelt, but the lyrics sometimes lapse into cliche and clunkiness. The cast can really sing, and they are accompanied by a live band that sits offstage.

A couple of times during the play, I found myself wishing the staging had been a bit more daring, more in keeping with the script’s earnestness. I felt that if I could see more of the play’s guts, more in the way of physical transformations from the actors, maybe even see the band, I would have felt a stronger connection to the material. As it is, the production feels rooted more in the idea of a small town than in the gritty details of small town life.

There are a couple of funny details worth noting. The play is based on a 1996 film that ends quite differently. The film was shot in Peacham and St. Johnsbury, Vt., and among the cast, in a small role, was Lyme resident Faith Catlin, who was in the audience Thursday evening.

Is this a play to soothe away our troubled times? I don’t know. The letters that pour into Gilead are a veritable grab bag of American social problems and anxieties. “Do you think if a wound goes deep enough, the healing feels just as bad as what caused it?” Percy asks Hannah. If the nation still needs healing, from more than the 9/11 attacks, we’ve got some pain to walk through, and whether a sweet dose of musical theater can ease it is anyone’s guess.

Northern Stage’s production of “The Spitfire Grill” runs through May 4.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.