Arts Listings

Altarena’s ‘Spitfire Grill’ Serves Up Moody Tales, Music

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 10:00:00 AM

The sweep of bowed strings—cello and violin—blends in with piano and guitar, coming down from the musicians’ loft in the Altarena Playhouse, a little moody, impersonal yet country-flavored, powering the singing and texturing the story of The Spitfire Grill, the 2001 musical from the 1996 movie of the same name. 

That story’s sung and told in straightforward style: a young woman, leaving prison after five years, goes to a little rural town to start over, only to find the town itself is failing, abandoned ... 

She becomes, on and off, the centerpiece of gossip, fueled by the snoopy postmistress, working in the only eating establishment in town—and slowly learning the local secrets, the tragedies the townspeople are still in the shadow of, and what they don’t speak of, don’t even guess. 

The mood and the music carry much of the show like a dark stream the cast is carried along by, and they ride it gracefully. Thematically, The Spitfire Grill is about the healing of the displaced and the reconciliation of those rooted to place with the memories and survivors of what they’ve pushed away, or passed them by. Specifically, it wades in the troubled waters of post-Vietnam America, touching difficult, divisive themes sentimentally, with everything made better, but not muffling the resonance of the worst of those years. 

The cast of seven work well together, from the lone appearance of Percy (Sarah Kathleen Farrell) onstage, singing of getting away from imprisonment—to Gilead, a ghost town, where Joe (Jonathan Reisfeld), the local sheriff, is her parole officer, taking her in the middle of the night to the Spitfire, where its crusty owner Hannah (Kristine Anne Lowry) reluctantly takes her in as waitress and general factotum, later pairing her with her nephew Caleb’s (Paul Plain) wife Shelby (Donna Jeanne Turner) to run the place when her hip goes out.  

All the while, postmistress Effy (Ella Wolfe) is fanning up the gossip, while Caleb—always in the shadow of his MIA cousin, Hannah’s son, Gilead’s golden boy—missing his wife at home, starts his own snooping into Percy’s past. Meanwhile, Percy—and the audience—becomes aware of another uprooted, elusive presence, played by Leland Traiman. 

Half the cast is new to Altarena; some of the rest played in Bat Boy together—a musical that, ironically enough, spoofed some of the small town Americana clichés The Spitfire Grill brushes up against. 

But the sonorous quality of James Valcq’s music soothes and smoothes over potential rough spots; the economy of the book he wrote with lyricist Fred Alley lets the cast work as ensemble to put the story across, directed very well by Frederick L. Chacon, Altarena’s artistic director.  

Donna Turner plays a different, softer role than her last few at Altarena, and she does it very sympathetically, also delivering the best song, “Wild Bird,” with concentration and focus. 

The Spitfire Grill is able to touch gracefully on old standbys of nostalgia like the changing seasons in a small, rural “heartland” town, the sense of being forgotten in confused times and by a divided society, lost in the expanse of space—what some of the great T’ang Dynasty Chinese poets realized classically—moodily (and eerily) reminiscent of late ‘70s-early ‘80s America, the setting of the tale. There’s even a touch of Frank Capra, neither false nor cloying, as it often is in contemporary fare. 

The Spitfire Grill’s reliance on an evocative quality proves to be its beacon and saving grace. A story that reminds, in passing, of other stories, other events ... not a statement so much itself as an overtone—or a throb—of a troubled era that still is less past than swept under the carpet. 



8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 16 at Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda. $17-$20.