SU Drama’s production of ‘The Spitfire Grill’ relies on raw text, natural aesthetic

Courtesy of Mike Davis | SU Drama

Maria Bufalini plays Percy in SU Drama's production of "The Spitfire Grill," which runs until April 10.

Figures of trees line the back end of the stage, while a stump, an axe and a rocking chair sit near the front end. Pieces of wood and broken dishes hang on long curtain-like strips to set the rustic mood. A band of string instruments and piano are nestled into a corner of the stage, its members wearing denim jeans and flannels.

This is the scene audience members are presented with as they walk into the Syracuse University Department of Drama’s production of the Off-Broadway musical “The Spitfire Grill,” which opened this weekend. Directed by drama department chair Ralph Zito, “The Spitfire Grill” will run until April 10 at the Storch Theater in the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex.

Everything about the production — from its all-string accompaniment to its natural aesthetic — aimed to embody the idea of the countryside.

“This certainly isn’t your everyday kind of Broadway musical — first of all because of the musical style of the show and being it country and folk-esque,” said junior musical theatre major Maria Bufalini, who plays the main character, Percy. “… This show isn’t a spectacle musical. It doesn’t have big production numbers, doesn’t rely on big dance numbers or anything like that. It all goes back to the text and the raw story.”

At the start of the musical, Percy has just finished a five-year jail sentence. She decides to make her way to Gilead, Wisconsin — a decision based on a beautiful photograph of the town’s autumn surroundings she found in a travel book.

While redemption is hardly an unfamiliar plot, what audiences might not expect is that there’s more than just one storyline. Just as Percy finds a second chance at a life outside of prison, the town of Gilead gets another chance at hope after a tragedy that happened many years ago.

Bufalini said she did plenty of research on prison life and solitary confinement in order to “nail” what’s going on mentally for her character. She didn’t want to get stuck playing a wounded or a dark person — rather, she aimed to keep Percy’s intentions front and center.

“It was a big undertaking because her story is so dark. But she brings so much light to this community that I had to work on not getting stuck in the darkness of her past,” said Bufalini. “I still needed to be able to bring that to the storyline — just not get trapped in it.”

Audience members will find themselves relying on suspension of disbelief from time to time because of the production’s simplistic nature. For example, at one point during the musical, blue lights can symbolize the fact that a scene takes place outside, while orange or red lights can symbolize an interior scene.

But the production hinges itself on the story of the small town and the development of its characters.

In the story, Percy starts working at The Spitfire Grill, which is owned by an old woman named Hannah. When Hannah gets injured, Percy and a local named Shelby, played by Kelsey Roberts, are tasked with helping out at the grill as Hannah makes her recovery.

Roberts, a junior musical theater major, said she finds Shelby to be a shy and tentative character.
“She always wants people to be comfortable and everything to be even keel, no drama,” said Roberts. “So I think Percy shows her what it’s like to not be OK and to stand up for yourself … Shelby would never have stood up for anything had she not seen how Percy lives and the kind of things that Percy has faced.”

Roberts also said she loved playing Shelby from the very beginning because of her development. Early in the show, audience members see Shelby dealing with a controlling husband and unable to voice her thoughts.

But Roberts said a costume change in Act Two, where she wears pants instead of a skirt, symbolizes Shelby’s increased confidence and growth as a person.

“My favorite message from the show is just finding yourself … and saying, ‘I don’t have to keep beating myself up for things that happened in my past,’” Roberts said. “It’s all about becoming OK with who you are and growing from that.”


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