The Spitfire Grill is a hidden gem of show. Audiences will discover that it is intimate and filled with soul. Composer James Valcq and lyricist Fred Alley have said in many interviews that they hoped their show would find a home in regional theaters. If you take a peek at the production history of the show, it has indeed proven to be popular with regional, educational, and community theaters. Since its Off-Broadway premiere in 2001 at Playwrights Horizons, the musical has had over 500 different productions worldwide. What is it about this show that is so appealing to these theaters? I believe the clues lay in the musical’s setting.
The show is set in the fictional town of Gilead, Wisconsin, a change from the 1996 movie that Spitfire is based on, where Gilead was instead a town in Maine. Valcq and Alley decided to change the setting for their adaptation because they are both Wisconsin natives. They intentionally set the musical closer to their hometown and their roots. The name “Gilead” is actually a biblical reference to a rare medicine, and is the subject of the popular hymn, “There is a Balm in Gilead”:
“There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.”
At the start of Spitfire we meet Percy, a young woman fresh out of prison. She travels to Gilead after seeing a picture of the town’s famous creek in a travel guide. She hopes it will be a place that will heal her “sin-sick soul” and offer her a new beginning. As she starts her new job at the Spitfire Grill, a local restaurant in the heart of town, she learns that the town of Gilead is just as wounded as her. It is a town haunted by its past. The people of the town are set in their ways, and no longer see the beauty that surrounds them. Once she helps them rediscover the spirit inside of Gilead, they are on the path to becoming “whole” again.
As they sit in the Spitfire Grill one night, Percy and her new friend Shelby reflect on the town of Gilead. Shelby, who has lived in Gilead her whole life, tells Percy that there is nothing special about the town. When Percy describes Gilead from her own perspective, she is able to remind Shelby that Gilead is special:
“Have you ever dreamed of a town so small, they roll the sidewalk up?
Where the waitress spills the gossip as she fills your coffee cup?
You can own a piece of heaven, where the hummingbirds still hum,
and the colors of paradise come.”
Percy’s description of Gilead vividly describes the feeling that the town evokes. It is not a geographically specific description, because Gilead is the kind of simple and archetypal town that transforms into whatever you want it to be. It can become your escape, your fresh start, your new home, even your ‘heaven’ or ‘paradise’. I think this is the reason that The Spitfire Grill is so popular among regional theaters: the town of Gilead could be any small town in the USA. When theaters work on this show, Gilead belongs to them. They can craft it to reflect their homes and communities, which makes the show much more impactful to its audience.
The Spitfire Grill is about rediscovering life in yourself and in the places around you. Over the course of the show, we see one woman helping a whole community come alive again and rediscover the beauty of their hometown, while finding a fresh start and a new life for herself. It is the perfect show to go up during Emerson’s Family Weekend. When watching the show, I believe audiences will feel an ache of nostalgia for their own hometowns— their own personal Gilead. Emersonians will appreciate the tight-knit community represented in Spitfire, and the family dynamic that is eventually formed. Like Gilead, Emerson is not an especially large community, but we are definitely strong, collaborative, and unified.