Finding her voice

An ex-con, a village, an opera
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  January 27, 2010

SINGING WHILE THEY WORK: The people of Gilead.

"There is a balm in Gilead," an old African-American spiritual has it, and sure enough, Percy Talbott (Kelly Caufield) finds that balm. Her Gilead isn't a Biblical land east of the Jordan River, though; in fact, it's in '80s Wisconsin. A tough but sensitive young woman about to be released from prison, Percy has seen magazine photos of rural Gilead in its full autumn colors, and made it her destination for starting her life anew. But it turns out that Gilead and its residents could use a little renaissance themselves in The Spitfire Grill, a heartwarming and strongly sung musical directed by Brian P. Allen for Good Theater.

The first Gilead resident Percy meets is her new parole officer, Sheriff Joe Sutter (Todd Daley, charmingly), who can't imagine why she's chosen his dull town. He brings her in to the Spitfire Grill to meet her new boss, the tough old widow who owns it, Hannah (visiting Equity actress Claudia Schneider, with great spunk and tang). After the requisite trial-by-fire of gossip, particularly by the town gabber Effy (Amy Roche, saucily), Percy makes friends with a shy neighbor who helps out at the Grill, Shelby (Kate Davis, a sweetly charismatic presence), who has a troubled husband (Timothy Bate, with mighty voice and very convincing vulnerability). Percy also becomes close to Hannah, who as it turns out has some hurts of her own.

I've called Spitfire a musical, but it might be more accurately described as an opera in the American idiom: Much more of the story and dialogue is sung, in styles ranging from bluegrass and country to gospel, than in your typical Broadway musical. If you're not partial to song, this play is probably not for you. But those who appreciate a good harmony, as well as the uplift and lyric simplicity of the American songbook, will take pleasure in Good Theater's exuberant production. Victoria Stubbs directs a fine live band that includes mandolin and violin, and in the lead role Caufield is marvelous. Her voice is powerful and expressive, and her characterization of Percy is sharp and endearing. She leads an excellent cast, one whose voices are stirring and whose portrayals of their small-town Wisconsin characters are bright and appealing.

These characters struggle along under the dual pleasures and difficulties of small-town rural life, and Stephen Underwood's elegant set design evokes their setting well: We see on stage not just Gilead's homey warmth, in the reassuringly sturdy wood furnishings of the Grill, but also its stark, sometimes cold beauty, in a stand of birches at the back of the stage.

The trees beautifully catch and throw the ever-changing light (gorgeous light design is by Jamie Grant) of Gilead's seasons. In the same manner, the Good Theater's production tenderly reveals the progress of a town's redemption, as its folks find that the real balm is in each other.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at

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