Where: Refuge Theatre Project at the Windy City Café, 1062 W. Chicago Ave.
When: through May 5
For tickets: www.refugetheatre.com
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Adept at staging musicals in unconventional spaces, Refuge Theatre Project is dishing up an enjoyable version of “The Spitfire Grill” at a real diner, the Windy City Café in West Town.
James Valcq and Fred Alley’s 2001 musical is based on the eponymous 1996 film starring Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden and tells the story of Percy (Lauren Paris), a young woman just released from prison who relocates to the fictional small town of Gilead, WI, after seeing a lovely picture of it in an old travel publication. Once she gets there, however, she discovers that the town has dried up because the quarry has closed. Her parole officer, the sheriff Joe (Alex Christ), finds a job for her at the only restaurant left, the Spitfire of the title, run by Hannah (Katherine Condit), a cantankerous older woman with a dark secret.
Hardened but hopeful Percy has secrets too, of course, and in the course of two hours, she gets a second chance to be the person she’d like to be. She’s also the catalyst for the transformation of others, especially Hannah and Shelby (Emily Goldberg), who learns to stand up to her controlling husband, Caleb (Gerald Richardson), a quarryman and Hannah’s nephew, so she can keep working with Percy, a job she loves.
Rounding out the characters are Effy (Nicole Michelle Haskins), the postmistress and local busybody, and the Stranger (Matt Patrick), whose identity is immediately obvious. The central action that sort of brings everyone together is a contest Percy and Shelby cook up for Hannah to give the grill to the person who submits the best essay about why they want it, along with $100. The whole plot—complete with a halting romance between Percy and Joe—is pretty formulaic and clumsily worked out, but Refuge’s actors, under the direction of Christopher Pazdernick, make us care about these people, or at least some of them.
The intimacy of the setting is a big part of this success. Seated at booths and a row of chairs on one side of the cafe’s small second dining room, the audience is only a couple of feet from the players. Their set is the three booths opposite. The Spitfires’s kitchen is Windy City’s in the adjoining room. People come and go through a front door. If Collin Helou’s lighting design is rudimentary, it’s also remarkably effective with minimal equipment.
The production isn’t amplified, a real boon in my book, and music director Jon Schneidman, who plays piano, guitar, and harmonica—sometimes all at once—does an outstanding job of serving a variety of songs ranging from ballads like “A Ring Around the Moon” and “The Colors of Paradise” to rousing numbers such as “Shoot the Moon.” My favorite is “Into the Frying Pan,” Percy’s blues-y tribute to the tribulations of running the restaurant.
Paris delivers this one with aplomb, even though she doesn’t have a huge voice, and her feisty Percy is a pleasure to watch as she gradually softens from defensive, even hostile, to warm and supportive in every way. Her horrific back story makes us appreciate her strength all the more and unites us against the small-minded townsfolk (ie Caleb and Effy) who oppose her.
The other standouts are Goldberg’s Shelby, who sings like an angel, and Condit’s crusty Hannah. Christ gives sympathetic support as the good-hearted Joe, and Haskins, who does have a big voice, is appropriately annoying as Effy.
Refuge’s “The Spitfire Grill” probably would be less successful in a larger theater, but it’s right at home in this little diner.