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THEATER REVIEW The Spitfire Grill
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2018-04-04

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Playwright: Book, music and lyrics by James Valcq and Fred Alley

At: Refuge Theater Project at the Windy City Cafe, 1062 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets: $30. Runs through: May 5

The location of the diner lending our production its title is identified in the playbill as "Northern Wisconsin" (though textual clues indicate the state's southwestern counties)—specifically, an economically depressed town ironically named Gilead. Here the young Perchance "Percy" Talbot arrives, after serving time in prison, seeking sanctuary and a fresh start. As she struggles to overcome the suspicions of the citizens, we learn that they, too, chafe under regrets too long unacknowledged. One day, Percy and her co-worker Shelby hatch a plan to help restaurant owner Hannah sell the business. Soon the malaise infecting the blighted village is banished, and peaceful harmony reigns.

Why should this surprise us? From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Saul Bellow, a nostalgia for pastoral paradises permeates our nation's cultural DNA. When you factor in the emotive sensibilities generated by the introduction of music, you have a sure-fire formula for sentimentality—but while composer/authors James Valcq and Fred Alley deliver anguish and elation in abundance, their yarn also hints at more.

The immediate attraction of flight from civilization lies in the promise of solitude ("getting away from it all"), but human beings were never meant to dwell in isolation. Percy may initially resist the overtures of her peers, Shelby submit to her husband's restrictive demands and Hannah adopt a gruff surliness, but once the scheme to raffle off the property brings a flood of mail from contestants as far away as Canada, Gilead's resurrection is ensured, not only by the allure of the surrounding forests, but the fellowship of strangers sharing in the pantheist fantasy suggested thereby.

The Refuge Theatre Project continues its practice of employing environmentally appropriate performance spaces—in this case, an actual West Town cafe equipped with booths, napkin dispensers, a kitchen housing industrial dishwashers and an entrance door off the sidewalk (albeit not opening on stately groves of oaks and maples). This places actors at a proximity to the audience facilitating a warmth and empathy so unswerving that by the time their crystalline voices are raised on the score's rousing anthems (accompanied by a three-instrument one-man band and some astonishingly sophisticated sunrise effects), we are ready to book our vacations for the Badger State's Platteville-Lancaster district.


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