Saturday, October 15, 2011

REVIEW: “THE SPITFIRE GRILL” @ 4TH WALL THEATRE

I have been reviewing 4th Wall Theatre since its inception (when it was 4th Wall Musical Theatre), and just when I think they can't mount a better production (Assassins, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Nine, to name a few), they outdo themselves! This time out it's a splendid production of The Spitfire Grill, but you'd better hurry over to the Westminster Arts Center in Bloomfield because the show runs only two weekends, closing October 23.

Based on a critically successful 1996 small-budget film starring Ellen Burstyn, this off-beat play is perfect for the WAC stage. The music, reminiscent of Sondheim melodies leavened by country music rhythms, is powerfully sung by very talented actors, accompanied by a violin, cello, accordion, guitar and keyboard—along with an ax head being sharpened and a pail of gravel—all under the masterful direction of Kate Swan, with Markus Hauck’s terrific and very appropriate musical direction.

The tale is a simple one: Hannah Ferguson, grumpy and taciturn owner of a small café in the economically strapped very small hamlet of Gilead, Wisconsin, agrees to employ Percy Talbott, a young woman recently released from prison after serving five years for a murder. Percy’s arrival upsets the townfolk, who are not very welcoming —“Gilead’s a place for livin’, not comin’ to”—but Percy soon touches everyone’s life in significant ways. The unraveling of Hannah’s and Percy’s secrets provides the drama and keeps the audience riveted to their seats until the lights go down at the end!

Spitfire7748-web

Kate Swan's sure-handed direction is evident as the actors change scenes—and there are many— seamlessly, and the seven actors play their roles so naturally and convincingly that the audience is transported to Gilead in the blink of an eye. Alexis Field (right) is both tough and vulnerable as Percy, a self-styled “wild bird” who has come seeking peace and the “colors of Paradise” she’s seen in a travel advertisement for the region. Field looks every bit the West Virginia gal she’s playing (and sounds like one too), and you can’t help but like her. Her initial clumsiness as a waitress is hilarious, her earnestness touching and her voice powerful. As Hannah, Jodi Freeman Maloy (center) is crustiness personified, which makes her subsequent softening up even more poignant. This lonely woman has walled herself off from the world to hide a terrible secret; Percy’s love and needs make her feel wanted and important. Katie Bland's Shelby Thorpe (left), is more of a cipher; as the play is written, it’s difficult to discern the reason for her cowering behavior. Living with an abusive, domineering husband doesn’t totally explain it. But Thorpe’s beautiful voice is especially wonderful in her duets with Field, and she plays frightened mouse turned strong woman very well. (Photo: Tom Schopper)

Spitfire09991-webThe villains of the piece are two: Shelby’s husband Caleb and the town gossip Effy Krayneck. Kurt Robinson plays Caleb as a menacing bully, but he, too, has a vulnerable side which Robinson projects with his fine voice and body language. His defeated slump speaks volumes. As Effy, Christine Orzepowski's potential for causing harm is tempered by her deft comic timing and the terrific ability to put across a song. And Danny Arnold is a terrific foil for these two as Sheriff Joe Sutter, the voice of justice and good and a major instrument in Percy’s rehabilitation. He too has a beautiful voice and great stage presence. Watching his affection for Percy grow is heart-warming.

The production values of The Spitfire Grill are as terrific as the acting. Nicholas Marmo's lighting design is superb, smooth and very atmospheric; magically, the lights move with the actors. Robert Lavagno's set is a small town café to a T, and the actors get to use every inch of the small stage as they tell the story. The evocative and appropriate costumes by Janet Lazar convey the passage of time—especially the get-ups worn by Effy.

Theater is a transforming medium. It entertains us, lets us look through a window into the lives of others and provides a mirror for our own. The Spitfire Grill at 4th Wall Theatre does all this and more: it makes one believe in the goodness of human beings even as the news would show us otherwise. For these reasons, don't miss this production.

The Spitfire Grill will be performed at the Westminster Arts Center on the campus of Bloomfield College (a beautiful former church and a must-see itself). 449 Franklin Street in Bloomfield, just off Exit 148 on the Garden State Parkway, through Sunday, October 23. Performances are 8 PM Fridays and Saturdays, and Sunday, October 23, at 3 PM. For information and tickets, call 973.748.9008, ext. 279 or visit online at www.4thwalltheatre.org .

Watch the promo here