REVIEW: Meadow Brook Theatre Serves Up Hilarity and Hope with ‘The Spitfire Grill’

Often the best recipes are born when a chef is faced with the dilemma of creating a dish using only the ingredients on hand. The same principle applies to the characters in Meadow Brook Theatre’s current production, The Spitfire Grill. The result? A dish that not only warms the soul, but also gives you a little kick in the pants.

The Spitfire Grill first came to life in 1996 as a Sundance Festival award-winning film written and directed by Lee David Zlotoff. If you’ve watched the movie, know that the play differs slightly. If the story is unknown to you, then you are in for a treat. With music and book by James Valcq and lyrics and book by Fred Alley, I feel this musical’s message couldn’t be timelier and the themes of freedom, forgiveness, and failure Director Travis Walter touches on in his notes, hits the nail on the head. All three are main ingredients in the play’s recipe.

L to R: Larissa Klinger as ‘Shelby,’ Emily Hadick as ‘Percy,’ Mary Robin Roth as ‘Hannah,’ and Cory Cunningham and ‘Joe,’ star in ‘The Spitfire Grill’ at Meadow Brook Theatre.

Photo credit: Sean Carter Photography

As the play opens, we meet the unassuming heroine of the story Percy (played by recent OU alum Emily Hadick). She is on the verge of being released from prison after serving a five-year sentence. As she muses about what the next chapter of her life looks like, she takes out a well-worn picture clipped from a travel book simply captioned: “Autumn colors along Copper Creek near Gilead, Wisconsin.” The only problem is Gilead is pretty much a town filled with the ghosts… of memories, regrets, and not much else. In fact, the stage setup reflects the town and the people – a little rundown and desperately in need of TLC and a second chance. Because of this, Joe, the Sheriff (played by Cory Cunningham) is baffled with what to do with Percy. His only solution is getting her a job at The Spitfire Grill with its sharp-tongued owner Hannah (played by Mary Robin Roth who was last seen in MBT’s hilarious Arsenic and Old Lace). Of course, in a small town with nothing going on, it doesn’t take long for the rumor mill to start churning. In Gilead, the pot stirring comes courtesy of Effy (played by Kim Rachelle Harris). She is the embodiment of every small-town busybody who is hellbent on maintaining the status quo. Even Hannah’s nephew Caleb (played by Dan Fernaughty in his MBT debut) has no qualms letting Percy know she’s not the kind of new blood Gilead needs. Sound familiar? The only person who seems more intrigued rather than intimidated by Percy’s sudden appearance is Caleb’s meek wife, Shelby (played by Larissa Klinger).

Percy begins trying to fit in, but it isn’t easy (“Into the Frying Pan”). Slowly, you begin to feel a shift in attitudes – especially after Percy suggests the idea of holding a raffle to find a new owner for the Spitfire. At first, Hannah dismisses the idea, but soon she begins to realize this could be her best bet to finally lay to rest her ghosts. The raffle also helps Shelby find her own voice and purpose, much to Caleb’s chagrin. Not only is he frustrated that his wife no longer seems content with being a homemaker, but also at the world for not appreciating his efforts as a hard-working man which he laments in the song “Digging Stone.”

L to R: Larissa Klinger, Emily Hadick, and Mary Robin Roth star in ‘The Spitfire Grill’ at Meadow Brook Theatre.

Photo credit: Sean Carter Photography

As the raffle letters come pouring in from all over the country, the women – now bound together in a sisterhood of grit and determination – learn that longing and heartache extend far beyond Gilead. And yet, despite the positive turn of events, you can feel some of the same stubborn issues still simmering under the surface. Change is good, but it can be scary and at times painful.

Hannah repeatedly has Percy leave a loaf of bread out back by a stump. One night, Percy meets the recipient simply known as the Visitor (played by Michael Brian Ogden). He never utters a word, but his mere presence speaks volumes — more than most of the characters realize. After an encounter with the Visitor Percy asks Hannah, “You think if a wound goes real deep it could be just as bad as what causes it?” The answer to this poignant question is different for both women, but it forces Hannah to reflect on past wounds (“Forgotten Lullaby”).

I have to believe it’s no mistake the town is called Gilead. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because throughout the years it has popped up in literature such as Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, Stephen King’s series The Dark Tower, and as the setting for Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. But in the context of the play, we look to its Biblical roots. Gilead is an actual place that lies east of the Jordan River and inspired the traditional African American spiritual, “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.

Is Percy a savior or a sinner? The folks of Gilead can’t seem to decide, and that includes Percy. What happens when life typecasts us? Are we ever allowed to change roles? (“Shine”). Or with time, patience, and understanding can we find a home with roots so deep into the earth, they’ll never blow away? Let us all hope for the latter.

The performance runs approximately two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Have your spirits uplifted at one of the remaining performances happening now until Sunday, March 10.

Tickets range from $30 to $45 and are available by calling the Meadow Brook Theatre box office at 248-377-3300 or going online at Student discounts are available at the box office. Groups of eight or more should call 248-370-3316 for group pricing.

The Spitfire Grill is made possible through the generous support of Extended Stay Hotels, The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, The National Endowment for the Arts, The Kresge Foundation, The Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, The Shubert Foundation, and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild. Meadow Brook Theatre is located on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

Meadow Brook Theatre is a nonprofit, cultural institution serving southeast Michigan for more than 50 years. Call 248-377-3300 for additional information.

About Sarah Hovis

Freelance wordsmith, arts appreciator, grammar geek, sports spectator, stationery snob, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at


  1. james johnston says

    I thought the story started slowly and progressed to a point of a knock out play by the end of the story. great acting and singing by most of the cast. Would see it again and again.

  2. I agree. I saw it yesterday, March 3, and liked every bit. The singing was standout for me, especially Emily Hadick and Larissa Klinger. I would definitely see it again!

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