Musical explores transformation, self-worth

Students perform in "The Spitfire Grill." A new section of the UCS website will be specifically targeted towards students in the arts looking
for employment and other opportunities.
Students perform in "The Spitfire Grill." A new section of the UCS website will be specifically targeted towards students in the arts looking for employment and other opportunities. Photo by Stephanie Addenbrooke.

This week, a folk musical will explore the value of acceptance from the perspective of a woman who has only experienced it in prison.

“The Spitfire Grill,” a musical by James Valcq and Fred Alley based on the 1996 film of the same name,  opens Thursday night at the Whitney Theater. Directed by Cosima Cabrera ’14, the show centers on a female character named Percy, an ex-convict on parole who is sent to work at the title restaurant. As the initially unwelcoming townspeople gradually accept Percy into their community, she comes to terms with her troubled past and realizes her self-worth. Cabrera said she believes that the play’s main themes are applicable to nearly all audiences, including ones that have not experienced the characters’ lifestyles firsthand.

“What is so moving is to see Percy’s personal journey of learning how to forgive herself and how to love herself, which is something that everyone can relate to,” Cabrera said.

Cabrera explained that Percy initially lacks self-confidence because of her traumatic past and her status as an outsider in the townspeople’s community. But as the Grill’s owner Hannah tries to sell the diner, she added, Percy organizes a raffle to decide who will inherit the property, which creates an atmosphere of enthusiasm and excitement within the town. By unifying a community that had been largely devoid of activity, Percy begins to realize that she can positively impact those around her, Cabrera said.

Cabrera added that because the play is set in a small town in Wisconsin and the protagonist is an ex-convict, few audience members will be able to directly relate to the characters’ circumstances. However, she said, the play is more about the process of discovering one’s self-worth, which she thinks members of the Yale community can relate to. Many college students are more critical of themselves than they need to be and struggle to realize how valuable they are to others, Cabrera noted.

Emma Spence ’17, who plays Shelby, a character who works at the Grill, said she thinks the play emphasizes people’s ability to move on from their past and transform their personalities. She explained that Shelby is initially submissive to her domineering husband Caleb.

Kerry Burke-McCloud ’17, who plays Caleb, said his character was once the foreman of a stone quarry, which is why he needs to feel a sense of control in every environment, including his household. He recalled a scene in which Shelby is asked if she wants coffee but Caleb interjects and says that Shelby does not usually drink coffee.

Throughout the play, Spence added, Percy inspires Shelby to think and speak for herself. Shelby sees Percy as a free spirit who speaks her mind, while Shelby has spent much of her life learning not to speak freely, Spence noted.

Three cast members said they think the production also highlights the play’s small-town setting as a key element in the storyline.

Brandon Levin ’14, who plays Percy’s parole officer Joe Sutter, said he thinks his character is initially eager to leave the town of Gilead, Wisconsin because he feels life there is too monotonous. But after Percy arrives, he added, she stirs up a great deal of excitement around the Grill and also inspires Joe to appreciate the natural environment surrounding the town.

Spence recalled a song in which Percy sings about the beauty of the woods that Joe’s family owns, which causes Joe to remember how much he treasured these woods in his childhood.  The relationship between Joe and Percy becomes the romantic aspect of the musical, Levin said.

Spence added that the play’s intimate setting and relatively small cast allow it to create complex relationships between the characters, and that the play deliberately sends the message that conquering obstacles in life is far from a straightforward task. He offered the example of Caleb and Shelby, who love each other but whose circumstances have created a marriage in which Caleb is overly demanding and Shelby is too submissive. But even after Shelby learns not to be subservient to her husband, Spence added, she still loves him because it is difficult to simply leave someone after many years of marriage.

Burke-McCloud noted that Caleb’s overly controlling behavior is a result of his attempt to protect his wife and that he does not realize that his actions hurt his wife more than they comfort her.

“Caleb is a very sad and frustrated character who actually loves Shelby very much but does not know how to express his love in the right way,” Burke-McCloud said.

Performances of “The Spitfire Grill” will run through Feb. 8.

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