This musical play, adapted from a 1996 film, begins rather somberly but lifts the spirits in the end.

Currently presented by Austin Playhouse, the music and book by James Valco and Fred Alley cleverly weaves a tale with a simplistic storyline. This is one of those rare plays that succeeds without trying. It is a beautifully crafted tale of rebirth, forgiveness, and reawakening.

The ensemble cast do a superb job with both the acting and the lyrics. A real stand-out number is Wild Bird, sung by Sarah Fleming Walker. She delivers a sensitive rendering of this lovely, delicate tune. The wild bird at the centre of this play is Percy, played by Ella Mia Carter. She arrives in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin (the film, by contrast, was set in Maine) with little money and no obvious means of support. She finds work in the local diner, called the Spitfire Grill. It is run by an older lady, Hannah, played by the young Bernadette Nason in suitable makeup.

A major subplot here is the interaction between Percy and the local sheriff (Joe), played by the tall, young and handsome John Michael Hoke. How Joe confronts the dubious past of Percy is key ingredient of this multi-faceted plot, which also shows how Hannah deals with the memory of her son, MIA in the Vietnam War.  

In both subplots we encounter female empowerment and the power of forgiveness on a multiplicity of levels. Not bad for a simplistic storyline! At several points the audience just detaches and goes with the flow of the play as a bystander who nonetheless is deeply involved and emotionally touched by the evolution of the characters. There is a single character who, without saying a word, has a great impact on the audience.

The cast is rounded out by Matt Connely in the powerful role of Caleb, husband of Shelby (Sarah Fleming Walker) who helps Percy run the Grille when Hannah takes a medical break; Wendy Zavaleta as the town gossip, and James Davery as the Visitor.

While we have become accustomed to canned music in a musical production, this one delightfully employs a 5-piece band right on stage. A very nice touch. With a score that envelops one with hope and spirit, the music has a folk tune, homespun, quality that is nicely rendered by the band.

Needless to say, one must see this play, which I think will be remembered as one of the finest Austin will stage in 2024. Lara Toner Haddock is the Producing Artistic Director.

Band members: Lyn Koenning, John Holguin, Isabel Tweraser, Malcom Pinkston and Ethan Lao.

The Spitfire Grill runs thru Feb. 18, 2024

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Photos: lead photo: (l to r) Walker, Carter, Nason

2nd photo: Hoke and Carter

3rd photo: the cast

While its current location is 405 W 22nd St., Austin Playhouse recently received a $4.5 million grant from the City of Austin to build an Arts Center (pictured below). They still need additional funds to make it happen, so potential donors should contact them soon!

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.