Wouldn’t it be “GREAT” to turn back the clock to that happy era when “we all” lived in neighborly small towns with thriving businesses on “Main Street,” men worked “real,” well-paying jobs at the local quarry or mill, their wives made sure their shirts were laundered when they needed them and their dinner was ready when they got home, and “everyone” was just so much better off?
That’s not just a question animating a dishearteningly large proportion of the American electorate this year. It’s also one that threads, rather uneasily, through the center of James Valcq and Fred Alley’s The Spitfire Gril, a musical that debuted in 2001 and was based on a 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff.
Set in fictional Gilead, Wisconsin – a town that, having depleted both its local quarry and its forests of all their valuable resources, now has little satisfying or gainful employment to offer to its residents – the musical is alternatingly cynical and sentimental about the mythical “lost America” the town represents. The plot revolves around a scheme to raffle off the town diner that elderly owner Hannah (Terry Wickline) has been trying to sell for a decade. The idea is that her Spitfire Grill will go to the person who writes the best essay describing why they should win it. The ad that hometown girl Shelby (Erin Lindsey Krom) and ex-con newcomer Percy (Lindsay Bayer) write to publicize the raffle describes Gilead accurately, but in terms that bathe it in a nostalgic-aspirational Norman Rockwell-esque glow: “Have you ever dreamed of a town so small they roll the sidewalks up? …. Here’s a chance to win a grill … the customers who eat here are people that you know.” To Hannah’s surprise, the response to the ad is overwhelming: thousands of essays pour in from people all over the country grasping at that very dream.
The musical doesn’t quite know what to do with the nostalgic impulse it has dredged up by way of this plot device, however. On the one hand, it seems to want to win our sympathy for these retrograde dreams of pastoral bliss: the desire for a simpler, less harried, more connected life expressed in the essays Hannah receives is one that it’s hard not to relate to. Moreover, the rousing central ballad of the first act, “Diggin Stone,” invites us to align ourselves with the frustrations Caleb (Matthew J. Rush) feels after having been left behind by his town’s economic decline (a laid-off foreman from the quarry, he’s trying to eke out a living selling real estate “till the quarry’s open again”). “Where are the days when a man could lift his head/ Proud of the ways he’s earned his daily bread?” he croons with agonizing resentment.
But careful where you hang your hat: as it continues, the song starts to sound like a potential anthem for disaffected voters ready to believe that their problems will be solved by a huge wall around the country. Among Caleb’s complaints: “…Then hard times come to town/ Shake your hand and set you down/ Set you up to watch you fall/… You stand back up and get knocked down/ Watch as a stranger takes your town/ You suck it in and you swallow lies/ Something deep in your belly dies….” Youtube bears me out on this one: when I searched for a recording of the song so that I could quote the lyrics, its algorithm spit out, at the top of the list of related videos, an interview with Jon Stewart about the current presidential race in which he queries, in response to such complaints: “When was America great? … And who took your country away from you?”
So although this musical was written over a decade and a half ago, long before the great recession, it seems very much a musical for and of our current moment, albeit with a much more ambiguous critical stance than it might have taken had it been written more recently. The play’s politics feel a bit like beads of mercury, sliding away from any attempt to pin them down. For example, the nostalgia of “Diggin’ Stone” is countered by the fact that the drunk, bullying Caleb is the least likable character in the story, which encourages us to cast something of a gimlet eye on his grievances. Moreover, the dark underbelly of the patriarchal utopia that he and the raffle entrants yearn for is sliced open when Percy reveals her back story of rape and assault at the hands of an abusive stepfather. Clearly, the musical wants to point out that “everyone” was not better off in that mythical “great America” that never was. But although The Spitfire Grill has several potentially incisive and critical insights to offer into the absurdity and irreality of sentimentalizing and nostalgizing the past, the imperative of a redemptive happy ending means that faith in small-town virtues – if not the patriarchal order – must nevertheless be reconfirmed in its final moments.
The musical’s gender politics also give with one hand while taking with the other. Long stretches of the play pass the “Bechdel test” – there are three main female characters, they talk to each other, and, for most of the play, not about men. It’s refreshing to see a musical that takes a positive look at intergenerational friendship between women and pays homage to women’s ingenuity, strength, and fortitude. But then, for reasons that are unclear, there must be conventional heterosexual wooing: the sheriff, Joe (Clay Singer) falls for Percy and finds, in her, a motivation to stay in Gilead (but in order for him to make his obligatorily awkward proposal, the heretofore rather butch Percy has to doll herself up in a floral dress. What’s up with that?). I have a similar beef with the hetero coupling in Wicked – it feels like a bone tossed to the musical comedy dogs, completely inessential to what would otherwise be a fully satisfying story about female friendship. (For a brief few minutes during the first act, I thought that the romance might blossom between Percy and Shelby; alas, we’ve yet to see that romantic plot in a musical.)
Director Rachel M. Stevens makes an effort to call attention to the “not-greatness” of Gilead (and the “great again America” it can’t help but symbolize for a modern audience) by keeping Hannah’s son Eli (Michael Petrucci), a homeless Vietnam War vet, a constant and haunting presence on the stage from the very beginning of the play. It’s a laudable impulse. But because we don’t really learn his story until near the end of the play, the significance of this figure doesn’t quite have the intended impact.
Some aspects of the production are more successful than others. Music director Deana Muro leads a unseen, first-rate ensemble of five musicians who capture a range of vernacular music styles with dexterity and panache. Among the cast, Bayer, Krom, and Singer are particularly strong, demonstrating impressive vocal and emotional range. As the nosy, gossipy Effy Krayneck, the reliable Becki Toth builds an easy rapport with the audience and provides consistent comic relief. Andrew David Ostrowski’s saturated lights help evoke the autumn colors that are the town’s signature draw, but on opening night, shaky follow spot cues were a distraction. As was Lindsey B. Mayer’s incoherent scene design, in which putty-colored exterior siding on moving panels form the interior walls of the restaurant. The slatted wall behind the diner kitchen looks more like the wall of a barn than that of an eating establishment, and the row of old windows at the back of the stage seem a superfluous afterthought. Equally incoherent was Stevens’s seemingly arbitrary use of real props for some actions, and mime for others. I’m not sure what kind of theatrical world we’re in when a character can light and smoke a real (herbal) cigarette but has to pour invisible coffee from a real pot into a real cup and chop invisible vegetables with a real knife.
Those distractions aside, the storytelling here is clear and compelling, and the fact that I found so much to think and write about (this is one of my longest posts in a while!) is a sign that this musical got under my skin. Perhaps not only in ways I find agreeable; but, in my humble opinion, any art that gets the neurons firing at such a high volume is well worth the price of admission.