If you've seen a film called "The Spitfire Grill," don't let that stop you from attending the musical currently running at Cyrano's. Although based on that movie, this is a completely different animal (especially the ending).
A talented cast conveys some of the most difficult emotions known to humankind: self-doubt, loneliness, loss of hope, the bitter stoicism that comes from repeated pain and disappointment. A near-capacity crowd at Thursday's preview was appreciative yet mostly silent and absorbed, drawn in immediately to the show's universe.
Sitting in the audience was like taking a table at the Spitfire itself. Set designer Brian Saylor has created a humble eatery so authentic you can all but smell coffee and hash browns. And the performers belong there – not characters in a play, but rather people you've known your whole life, or at least nod at in recognition when you enter your own favorite restaurant.
Gilead, Wisconsin, is like many rural areas in the mid-1980s. Its residents struggle because their parents' advice (marry young, work hard, stay in your place) no longer works in a town that's been clear-cut, quarried out and bypassed by a state highway. Restaurant owner Hannah Ferguson (Kendra Gladwill) may have suffered the most: Her husband died from grief after their son, the town's golden boy, went MIA in Vietnam.
In such a sad, insular town, the arrival of a mysterious young woman awakens both confusion (why did she come here?) and suspicion (what's she running from?). We already know the answers: The show opens with Percy Talbott (Anna Cometa) looking out the window of the prison cell that's been her home for five years. The song "A Ring Around the Moon" explains that she chose Gilead after seeing a beautiful photo in a travel guidebook.
Cometa, a classical soprano and Anchorage Opera veteran seen earlier this year in Cyrano's production of "Disenchanted," wisely avoids an overly dramatic turn on all her songs. Her singing is lovely but down-to-earth and at times even gritty, as befits her character's hardscrabble existence and also the folk/bluegrass/country-pop music of "Spitfire." Ditto the songs from two other cast members with opera experience: Martin Eldred (who plays Hannah's nephew, Caleb) and Lisa Willis (who portrays Caleb's wife, Shelby, and is also a "Disenchanted" alum).
While most of the songs are full of raw emotion, there's a sense of playfulness in tunes like "Something's Cooking At the Spitfire Grill," "Shoot the Moon" and "Into the Frying Pan." Keyboardist (and music director) Lynnette Harple and guitarist/mandolinist Kelly Leavitt provide understated accompaniment that supports but never overwhelms the voices.
Despite the dramatic songs and storyline, there's a fair amount of humor in "The Spitfire Grill." This rings especially true with the sardonic Hannah, who needs only a few words to cut anyone down to size, and Percy, whose quips are more pugnacious than droll.
Director Warren Weinstein has encouraged his actors to create fully realized characters without slipping into cliché or stereotypes. Town postmistress Effy Krayneck could have come across as just a nosy old snoop, yet actress Meagan Hayes shows us that Effy's job is her identity and the only thing she can control as the town dies around her. Late in the play, Hayes displays a flash of vulnerability that had some audience members sighing in pity.
Caleb comes across as a mansplainer and something of a bully. Yet when he sings "Diggin' Stone," we understand why. Laid off after years of backbreaking work in the quarry, he remained in Gilead hoping to help his aunt (and the town) survive her dual losses. Unable to make any real difference, let alone a decent living, Caleb sings in full-throated grief: "Maybe I ain't a man at all."
Other townspeople bear similar burdens of pain and despair, which could be why they resent Percy so much. To her, Gilead represents a dream, even though the reality is a bit more complicated. (Isn't it always?) Once a town raffle starts to gain traction, it's a chance for others to believe too.
Fortunately, none of this is played for sweetness and light, or even the assurance of a permanent fix. Change is never easy, especially when previous hopes have died. Even as "The Spitfire Grill" avoids a Lifetime-movie view of the economics of a small town or the mechanics of the human heart, it reminds us that moving forward is always better than staying stuck. Now that's a song worth singing.
Donna Freedman, a former Anchorage Daily News reporter and reviewer, blogs at DonnaFreedman.com.
THE SPITFIRE GRILL continues through Aug. 19 at Cyrano's Theatre Company, 3800 DeBarr Road. Show times are 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 ($23 for students, seniors and members of the military), available at CenterTix (263-2787) or Cyranos.org. Children under age 8 will not be admitted.