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'Spitfire Grill' lives up to its name

From left, actresses Bonni Allen, Nancy Marvy and Alle Bowman rehearse a scene Tuesday for the play "The Spitfire Grill," tonight's opener for the Paul Bunyan Playhouse's professional summer stock theater season. The heartwarming musical runs through June 16, with performances at 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and 8 p.m. June 13-16, at the Chief Theatre. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI - How many of us would like a second chance, an opportunity to make a new life in a place chosen from a beautiful picture - a place where no-one knows your name?

Sounds rather exciting and adventurous but if you were just released from prison for manslaughter it takes on a whole new meaning for you and your chosen destination.

And so it goes for Percy Talbot, the lead character in "The Spitfire Grill," an uplifting musical based on the movie released in 1996, and the rural community of Gilead.

Brought to life by local actor Alle Bowman, Percy lets us believe in second chances, giving hope in the possibilities of new beginnings.

In her quest for a fresh start, she has chosen a small town in rural Wisconsin from a photo taken on a lovely fall day, showing her youth as she chooses her life's direction as one would a new dress. Shortly following her arrival in the nearly deserted community, she lands a job and a place to stay in the local greasy spoon, The Spitfire Grill. She soon finds appearances can be deceiving, even in beautiful pictures from outdated brochures.

From the owner Hannah, played by veteran actor Nancy Marvy, as a crusty woman who has convinced herself and her customers that she needs "nobody for nothing," to Effy the town gossip, Percy is badgered in that way only locals can do. But Percy manages to give it right back, going blow for blow, confirming she has indeed found her home in the aptly named eatery. Her journey from a prison-induced attitude of corrosive guilt to self-forgiveness is assisted by engaging characters portrayed by a cast of masterful actors; Bonni Allen as Shelby, Aleks Knezevich as Joe Sutter, Bryan Dobson as Caleb Thorpe, Catherine Battocletti as Effy and Mark Fulton as Eli Ferguson. Together, they take the audience along on the ride from apprehensive isolation to community and open, joyous and unaffected caring, needing the transformation in themselves as much, or perhaps even more than Percy does.

The Spitfire Grill opened off-Broadway in the week following the 9/11 disaster. Because of this unfortunate timing, the poignant production didn't receive the audiences or accolades it deserved, although the critics gave it their seal of approval. The play touches on close-to-home themes, such as an economically depressed small town, a child lost in battle, and a marriage on the rocks. Chosen by Artistic Director Terry Lynn Carlson in his premier performance for the Paul Bunyan Playhouse, he gives these serious issues a light touch, allowing the audience to be captivated by the sincerity of the language and the folksy musical score. Abe Hunter leads the musical cast comprised of cellist Eric Haugen, violinist Melanie Hansen and guitarist Michael McKeown as they weave their magical musical spell and the realistic set on the stage of the Chief Theater is beautifully lit as designed by Paul Epton. Stage Manager Teresa Rankin coordinates Micayla Thibeault-Spieker on props and costumes are once again created by long-time Paul Bunyan Playhouse designer Kay Robinson, with alum Caleb Fricke as the technical director.

Performances of The Spitfire Grill are underwritten by The Edgewater Group and opens at 8 tonight in the Historic Chief Theater.

The show continues through June 16. Ticket prices for the 8 p.m. performances are $22 for adults, $15 for students and $20 for groups of 10 or more. Tickets for the Sunday matinee, at 2 p.m. Sunday, are $15 for all ages.

All tickets may be purchased through the Playhouse Box Office at (218) 751-7270 or online at