Heartbreak and Hope 

Shakespeare Festival ends with warm, fuzzy musical

The final show in the Idaho Shakespeare Festival's 30th anniversary season is a down-home Americana musical. It's not a big, splashy song-and-dance production, heavy on skimpy costumes and gorgeous girls like the season's opener, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Instead, it's a heartwarming story about seven people we all know--or think we do. Brilliantly directed by Drew Barr, the play deals with the mistakes people make in life and offers the hope that they can get a second chance to make the right decisions.

  • Troy MabenCourtesy Idaho Shakespeare Festival
  • Sara Bruner

The Spitfire Grill is the strange name of the only restaurant in Gilead, Wisc., a tiny depressed town that even the sheriff can't wait to leave. Percy Talbott, paroled after five years in prison, chooses to start her new life there because of a picture she saw in an old travel book. Idaho Shakespeare Festival regular Sara M. Bruner, returns for her 10th season at the festival, showing the power and charisma she has developed over the years in her characterization of Percy. Bruner bubbles with energy, enthusiasm and the prickly spirit perfect for someone who has had a hard and tragic life. With her fly-away hair, scrubbed look and startlingly big voice, she sweeps the rather thin plot line into a rich story with people and problems we really care about. When she starts to work at the cafe, sparks begin to fly, from her comic breakfast making to her idea to sell the rundown restaurant through a raffle.

The rich rhythmic music composed by James Valcq, who also served as musical director for the production, weaves perfectly into the story and delves into the characters, revealing their hopes and dreams.

Another outstanding performance is given by Carole Whiteleather as Hannah Ferguson, the crusty, tart-tongued owner of the cafe. Injured in a fall, Hannah turns the operation of the restaurant over to Percy and Shelby Thorpe, the mousy wife of Hannah's nephew, Caleb. Whiteleather is a remarkable actress, absent too long from the local stage, since she is serving as education director for the ISF. She has the ability to wrap herself in her character like it's a second skin. As Hannah, Whiteleather is cranky, gruff, independent and can break your heart with the sadness in her beautiful song, "Forgotten Lullaby."

Shelby is played by the sweet-voiced Beverly Ward, who skillfully shows how the timid woman is energized by association with the feisty Percy. She even develops enough backbone to stand up to her controlling husband, Caleb, strongly portrayed by Darren Matthias.

Lynn Allison wins lots of laughs as Effy, the "town crier," a snoopy postmistress who knows everything that goes on in the town. Ashton Byrum, in his first role with ISF, plays Sheriff Joe Sutter, who is also Percy's parole officer. He gives a dreamy performance as he finds himself falling in love with Percy.

The production is enhanced by Jeff Herrmann's magical set, which seems to float together with the background of delicate trees with silver leaves.

The entire show clicks spiritually and emotionally, from the mystery of who takes the daily bread from the woodpile, the question of why Percy was in jail and the worry about what will become of her, Hannah and the cafe that links them all together. The Spitfire Grill is a heartwarming experience for a cool summer night, leaving tears in every eye and a smile on every face.

The Spitfire Grill, music and book by James Valcq; lyrics and book by Fred Alley, based on the film by Lee David Zlotoff. Runs 7 p.m. tonight, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sept. 24, 27-30. Theater and Cafe Shakespeare open at 5:30 p.m. Tickets: $20-$35. Idaho Shakespeare Festival, 5645 Warm Springs Ave. For more information or tickets, call 336-9221 or visit www.idahoshakespeare.org.

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