‘Spitfire Grill’ at Timber Lake.
By Sue Langenberg

The summer schedule of productions at Timber Lake Playhouse is flying fast as sixth show “Spitfire Grill’ opens. That is a major show up and down every two weeks since the season began in June. But the extraordinary company of performers, roster of guest directors, artistic director Jim Beaudry and mighty staff have kept up the pace to deliver a success each time, and are not losing steam.
Now ‘Spitfire,’ directed by TLP guest Matthew Teague Miller, is on the heels of powerfully profound “Children of Eden,” a rather tough act to follow. ‘Spitfire’ is nonetheless another musical offering that plays with one’s philosophical deliberation on many levels. For purely entertainment, the songs and quippy dialogue deliver a connection to the regular grass roots Joe Schmos of America in an average small town. Soon after a few stage-setting songs, there is a magnanimous message about life and yearnings for honesty that one cannot help but be drawn into. Then there are chapters of darkness mixed with moments of poignant misfortunes that call upon one’s heart to solve life’s cruel realities, whether experienced in the small town rumor mill or the sophisticated city. It is all about us, wherever we are.
In this case, the movie by Lee David Zlotoff came first, followed by music and book by James Valcq and lyrics and book by Fred Alley. Then Off-Broadway runs led the show to a journey of awards and presentations with critical acclaim to propel success.
Main character Percy Talbott, played by TLP’s strong voiced Erica Vlahinos has done a prison stretch and seeks to restart her life in a one-horse town. She is met with immediate suspicion by various locals, but seems to win over a basic approval of “Spitfire Grill” owner Hannah Ferguson, played by guest performer Marcia Sattelberg, a gentle-but-strong Wisconsin presence. Local gossip postmistress Effy Krayneck, by Judy Knudtson, expresses the one-horse factor of small town mentality with her affinity for scandal and intrigue. Guest actress Knudtson, also from Wisconsin, has long been a solid theatrical force, comic and serious, in the area in roles including witches and queens and various venues of singing as in All That Jazz Big Band in Madison. Her work in this show was commendable as she returns since last season’s role in “Steel Magnolias.”
Within the first act, “Something’s Cooking at the Spitfire Grill” unites the singing characters including local Sheriff Joe Sutter (Aaron Conklin) Hanna’s nephew Caleb Thorpe (Brandon Ford) and lovely wife Shelby (Katie Wesler) into a song that builds hope and yearning, much like the fugue of “Tonight” in “West Side Story” (Why not compare to a handy Mount Everest musical?). The effect is an indescribable feeling of anticipation that puts ‘Spitfire’ into a “nourish the soul” mood as is often thought about magic moments in the theatre. It was also a moment to appreciate the soprano voice of Wesler and as soloist in “When Hope Goes.” Her effect is softening against the strength of Vlahinos and a good blend with handsome Ford in “The Colors of Paradise.”
There is symbolism to study all over this show from the silent visitor Eli (Cody Canyon) who not-so-silently moves a dark secret into light and the “Wild Bird,” Shelby’s most moving vision hitting very high note of friendship brought together by what might be a threat to a small towner. The story holds together by wishes fulfilled or unfulfilled, but always seeking something elsewhere.
While TLP stage with rotating set has provided much dramatic movement in this season’s previous shows, ‘Spitfire’ has a stationary set depicting the restaurant, a shrewd choice that boxes the backdrop into a changeless environment of seemingly changeless characters. Thus the focus is on how positive change comes about, a set design by Nathan Dahlkemper. Musical director Cindy Blanc, invisible backstage, also provides some highly energetic and rhythmic story change music.
Must-see show “Spitfire Grill” continues through Sunday matinee August 21. Tuesday through Saturday show times at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and two Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday August 14 evening at 6:30 p.m. Timber Lake Playhouse of Mt. Carroll boonies is a hop, skip and a jump to 8215 Black Oak Road. Call the box office at (815) 244-2035 or boxoffice@timberlakeplayhouse.org for tickets, group rates and more information.