By Ian Rigg
It’s a space you never expected to find, that leaves visitors transformed.
That could describe the restorative power of a greasy spoon in a sleepy town, or it could refer to Refuge Theatre Project’s latest gem, The Spitfire Grill: repurposing a real-life café to tell a tale of second chances and the power of the human spirit.
Recently paroled from prison, feisty Percy finds herself in a picturesque but dried-up small town called Gilead, with a closed quarry and closed-minded neighbors. She’s arranged with a job at the titular greasy spoon, described quite literally as “the only place to eat in town”. But nothing is quite as simple as it seems, and a stirring folk score redeems everyone in the eatery – audience especially.
The Spitfire Grill comes to life in Refuge’s trademark ingenious detail, by utilizing every element of the Windy City Café to its advantage: for instance, the programs are menus, the actual kitchen serves as the offstage kitchen and characters really enter from the cold via the café’s exit.
Prop designers Evan Frank and Ross Egan secure the fixin’s to bring an air of vivid verisimilitude. And Lighting Designer Collin Helou must be commended for creating a dynamic and compelling environment of illumination using nothing but native jelled lights in the ceiling tiles and a miniature rig behind some booths (just wait for a divine golden moment in act two).
The small restaurant is filled to the brim with passionate song directed by Jon Schneidman, who also plays piano, guitar and harmonica with the inspired fervor of a man who HAS to play.
The genius gem is helmed by Refuge’s not-so-secret weapon, Christopher Pazdernik. Pazdernik has a knack for conjuring theatrical intimacy even when the audience is at a distance. And with only 40 seats available per performance for Spitfire, to be a booth’s length from the actors is to amplify their ardor all the more.
As the proprietor of the titular grill, Hannah, Katherine Condit is equal parts cantankerous and lovable. With a dedicated limp and curmudgeonly kindness hiding deep scars of her own, Condit has created a 3-dimensional character that’s a treat to watch.
With a boisterous tenor, Alex Christ charms as the jaded yet affable town sheriff, Joe.
Gerald Richardson might as well don a MAGA cap with the quarry-sized chip he carries on his shoulder as controlling husband and beleaguered nephew Caleb. Matt Patrick’s wide eyed wounds stir the soul with non-verbal acuity.
One of Chicagoland theatre’s treasures, Nicole Michelle Haskins splits sides as the nosy postmistress Effy. Persnickety and petulant, Haskins is clearly having a ball as the town busybody, using her remarkable vocal control to killer comedic effect.
There’s a voice inside all of us when we’re hurt and broken. A soft, sonorous, golden voice that glimmers in the dark and makes everything better. That voice sounds an awful lot like Emily Goldberg. As Shelby, she nails every nuance of a wife folded in on herself, and it’s a joy to watch her unfurl and rise above her husband’s controlling tendencies by working at a place she loves. There’s quite a lot of heart behind her deceptively simple comic timing.
And as protagonist Percy, Lauren Paris is a revelation. Ornery yet optimistic, tender but tempestuous, her deeply wounded demeanor is matched only by her apparent yearning for peace and affection. She inhabits the role with every laugh, every jitter, and every tear, her tremendous voice a contained supernova across a close-knit performance. Should she not receive her Jeff nomination, or at least get to record a folk album, then let it be known this is a world without justice.
But where there’s no justice, there is Refuge. One of Chicago’s gems, they deftly delve, then dive deep to showcase little pockets of humanity, and let them shine. By creating well-made microcosms, the company reveals people who are funny, furious, fumbling, forlorn and fated for triumph. And for all their attention to detail, they always seem to leave humanity laid bare. You can’t miss what they’re serving lately. Order up!
Refuge Theatre Project presents “The Spitfire Grill” through May 5 at the Windy City Café, 1062 W Chicago Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.