Hawthorne Players' THE SPITFIRE GRILL Serves An Excellent Slice of Small Town Intrigue

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Stefanie Kluba, Kathy Fugate and Melanie Kozak in The Hawthorn Player's Production of The Spitfire Grill. Photo Credit: The Hawthorn Players/Ken Clark

One of the best parts of being a theatre critic is the joy of discovering new venues and new shows. On Nov. 3, 2017, I corrected a long overdue oversight. I grew up in North St. Louis County and lived in Florissant for ten years, yet had managed to somehow never set foot in the James Egan Center, aka the Florissant Civic Center. Thus I had never set foot in the spacious Hawthorne Players home at the Florissant Civic Center Theatre before either. The seats rise high and steep enough to see well over anyone’s head in front of you, but not so steep to be problematic for folks like myself with mild mobility issues. The reasonably large stage boasted a gorgeous set designed by Director Ken Clark, built by Master Carpenter/Technical Director Dennis Dudenhoeffer and assisted by the cast and crew of The Spitfire Grill,  the musical I was about to see for the first time. I knew there was a movie version out not all that long ago, but since I never saw it I sat down in the middle of the audience with no preconceived notions.

The Spitfire Grill is the story of Percy Talbott (played by Stefanie Kluba), newly released from a five-year prison stint and looking for a second chance in the sleepy little hamlet of Gilead, Wisconsin. It’s a one street town, possibly one without so much as a stop light, and certainly one with only a single restaurant, the Spitfire Grill. The long-widowed Hannah Ferguson (Kathy Fugate) runs the place, but the town has fallen on hard times and her troublesome hip has her in the mood to sell. The problem is the town’s real estate broker, Caleb Thorpe (Danny Brown) has been trying for ten years to no avail. Sheriff Joe Sutter (Colin Dowd) greets Percy as she steps off her bus, as he’ll be overseeing her parole. He’s grown resentful of being stuck in Gilead but wisely connects Percy with Hannah, who could use the help whether she wants it or not. Shelby Thorpe (Melanie Kozak), Caleb’s long suffering wife, pitches in when it becomes clear that Percy isn’t too great behind the stove, and soon they become good friends. Effy Krayneck (Trish Nelke) is the “postmistress” and gossip who keeps all of the other unseen townies appraised of what’s cookin’ over at the Spitfire, but even she’s clueless about the mysterious Visitor (Robert Doyle) who sneaks away from the Grill every night with a loaf of bread.

Stefanie Kluba was fun to watch. She exhibited the bottled up anger on a hair trigger that many people who served a prison stint seem to have. Yet she also able to show Percy as a fragile, vulnerable soul, her rough veneer built upon the scars of a horrific childhood. The first act of The Spitfire Grill is largely warm, funny and upbeat, avoiding the typical “but then this terrible thing happens” moment just before intermission that so many musicals do. When Kluba uncorks the demon of her past, it wasn’t so much a gut punch but a trapdoor that seemed to catch the whole audience off guard. There were audible gasps in the audience, and the lady seated in front of me who had been laughing out loud not long before then was dabbing her eyes with tissues. I’ve always believed that the one thing any actor should hope to achieve in a performance is a response from the audience. Stefanie Kluba received strong responses throughout the show for a job well done. Her singing voice seemed a little shaky at the start, but whether that was to match the arc of her character getting stronger as she goes or outside factors—the notorious Florissant traffic paired with the equally fickle St. Louis weather could have cut into her warm-up time. Either way, by the end of the night she was belting out her songs with high emotion.

Melanie Kozak is a talented actress with an incredible voice who somehow never seems to get a chance to be a major character. Other than an award-nominated performance in The Elephant Man at The Looking Glass Playhouse in Illinois, she’s often cast in small roles or in the ensemble. I was elated to see her play a major part in this wonderful show. Even though Percy is the focus, Shelby seems like she has just as much character growth. She starts as a shrinking violet but emerges as a radiantly self-assured woman who isn’t going to take any more crap from Caleb, and her sweet voice rang out beutiully in every song.  Danny Brown, who has developed a reputation for playing the bad guy despite his actual congenial temperament, wasn’t too evil here. His Caleb was manipulative, but also somewhat pitiful for failing to live up to ideal that was neither realistic nor real. The myth of the town’s favorite son was perpetuated by Hannah, whom Kathy Fugate inhabited wonderfully. She was perfectly sarcastic, both cantankerous and caring, someone you’d like to share a slice of pie with if she wasn’t, in her own small way, somewhat responsible for much of the trouble in Gilead.

Trish Nelke was spot-on as the town gossip, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much creative license the show’s writers, James Valcq and Fred Alley, took with her job as Gilead’s “postmistress.” Some of Effy’s antics struck me as illegal if not unethical.  Colin Dowd, whom I’ve seen perform on the New Line Theatre stage, matures as an actor in every new production The young man convincingly plays an older, tired, world-beaten civil servant, seemingly the only lawman in a town where winter is the biggest crime. He’s Barney fife without his Andy, until Percy shows him a new way to see his old world. Mr. Dowd made Sheriff Sutter the loveable common man audiences always hope will get his girl in the end. His lower vocal range played nicely with the ladies high octaves. Robert Doyle’s “Visitor” is much more than an odd distraction. He has virtually no lines (I can’t remember if he actually speaks once to Percy or if she furnishes the word for him. Honestly, I spent most of the show thinking he was Colin Dowd in a heavy wig and beard.

The Orchestra, conducted by Ike Eichenberger, featured Karla curry on the keyboards, Lina Shulte on Cello, Twinda Murry on violin, Joe Paule Sr. on the accordion and the unstoppable D. Mike Bauer on guitar. I’d swear he plays t almost every local theatre show I get to. If he doesn’t already have some kind of record for most house orchestra appearances, he will soon. Appearances, in this case, might be a little misleading, as the whole orchestra is underneath the Spitfire and all the audience sees of them is the top of Maestro Eichenberger’s head. Of course their role is to set the atmosphere aurally and lat the foundation for the actors’ singing, and they did a very fine job in their cozy pit under Gilead’s Main (and pretty much only) Street.

Based on Lee David Zlotoff’s film of the same name, Ken Clark’s production of The Spitfire Grill offers a happier outcome than the film. The characters are all believably portrayed—everyone knows a Hannah Ferguson or a Caleb and Shelby Thorpe, even an Effy, I’d imagine. The way this fine assembly of actors brought such warmth and emotional depth to their characters made them resonate with us. I’m sure more than a few folks left the Hawthorne thinking, “That one reminded me of …” See for yourself if The Spitfire Grill feels as comfortable and familiar...and perhaps even a little dangerous...as heading home for the holidays, but see it soon—the show runs only runs through November 12, 2017. For ticket info, call 314-368-9909 or visit www.hawthorneplayers.com to find out more about of the area’s oldest theatre groups that is still a bit of a hidden treasure. 

5.0 / 5.0