The production of “The Spitfire Grill” being produced by the Corvallis School District Theater program starts with a lone figure on a dark stage – a single spotlight reveals the figure as a young woman in a Department of Corrections inmate uniform.
The musical tells the story of that inmate, a young woman named Percy, being released from prison and trying to start a new life in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin. When she arrives on a bus at midnight she receives a cold welcome from the sheriff, but is hired by the owner of the titular grill and given a place to live. As Percy begins to carve out a place in Gilead, she encounters a town full of broken people.
"The Spitfire Grill" opens tonight and runs until Nov. 24 at Corvallis High School.
Alex Staben, the Crescent Valley High School senior who plays Percy, said her character has a dark past, so it’s been a challenge to take on the role. She said she’s been in past productions, but nothing had prepared her for a show with themes of abuse and having to start over.
“I’ve had to look into experiences I’ve never had,” she said.
Staben said she’s spent time researching people who’ve survived trauma to understand the kinds of things that trigger strong emotions in them and tried to make subtle reactions to the things going on around her a part of her performance. She said her goal was to show how hard it is for a person to open up about their past when they can barely admit to themselves what they’ve experienced.
She said the work has been challenging, but she’s taken it on because she wants to do the powerful themes in the show justice.
“It’s one thing to say the words. It’s another to say them with conviction,” she said.
Staben said she’s added her own ideas about the character too. For example, she’s been working out a lot to try to play Percy as someone who has been through some harsh experiences and wants to be quietly prepared for whatever could come.
Staben said before a performance she also tries to isolate herself and do pushups and wall sits to get her blood flowing and into the right mental state to play someone who has survived prison and trauma prior to that.
However, Staben said, despite the darkness the show is worth seeing because it has an uplifting message.
“This story is dark, but it’s about coming together, it’s about family. When all the pieces come together, it leaves you with a tingly feeling,” she said.
Director Laura Beck-Ard said CHS staged “Spitfire Grill” in its first season in its new theater in 2006, and she’s wanted to stage it since she came to the school in 2008.
“The music is exquisite. The characters are so compelling. It’s the story of broken people who lean on each other until they can find a way to be whole. That’s something we need in our community and in our country more than ever now. The message is timeless.”
Beck-Ard said the district's fall shows typically more student driven than the spring shows. She said community members often are featured in the productions, but this time the entire cast of 13 is students. She added that the production has also given students more responsibility backstage too. The show’s vocal directors are students, and the conductor is CHS sophomore Adrian Hsieh. Beck-Ard said even set building was done with less adult leadership than past shows.
Her goal, she said, is for the show to be a training experience for the students so they can step into leadership roles in future shows too.
Beck-Ard said the set is designed with few walls to allow for seamless transitions between locations in the grill.
Many transitions between scenes are accomplished with by lighting changes.
She said the physical layout of the set is also designed to mimic Percy’s journey. The entrance to the restaurant on stage left is much more built out and busy, while the interior rooms on stage right are minimalist and open. She said Percy must push through the hard exterior of the townsfolk — the entrance to the grill — to get them to open up and connect to her.
Beck-Ard added that fewer people come to the districts' smaller fall shows, but the production of “Spitfire Grill” is such a showcase for impressive student work that it’s worth seeing.
“I don’t think this is something Corvallis wants to miss,” she said.
Emma Nichols, a Crescent Valley junior who plays Shelby, a woman who takes on responsibilities of running the grill while its owner recovers from an injury, said she thinks the themes of community in a small town will appeal to Corvallis.
“I think this story is very Corvallis,” she said.
Nichols said she moved to Corvallis three years ago from the San Francisco Bay area and she understands the struggle of trying to connect with people in a place where everyone knows each other.
She said she hopes people who see the show are receptive to its message about how difficult it can be to move to a new place and start to rebuild.
Forrest Irvine, a Corvallis High School senior who plays Sheriff Joe in the production, said the show’s small cast gives it an intimacy.
“The show has a lot of heart. The characters are all very emotionally rich. There is tragedy and darkness in the show, but also a lot that’s uplifting.”
Anthony Rimel covers education and crime in Benton County and weekend events across the Mid-Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or 541-812-6091.