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DramaWatch: Ex-cons, songs, and greasy spoons

The musical "The Spitfire Grill" and the comedy "Clyde's" are cooking in the kitchen. Plus: a Christopher Oscar Peña premiere at Profile; Oregon Children's Theatre's call for help; more.

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From left: Malia Tippets, Sharon Maroney, Dave Cole, and Danielle Valentine in "The Spitfire Grill" at Broadway Rose Theatre. Photo: Fletcher Wold
From left: Malia Tippets, Sharon Maroney, Dave Cole, and Danielle Valentine in “The Spitfire Grill” at Broadway Rose Theatre. Photo: Fletcher Wold

Imagine a town in rural Wisconsin, a bit down on its luck, called Gilead. Imagine the town’s one and only diner, The Spitfire Grill, which is both a town gathering spot and a place whose longtime owner, Hannah Ferguson, is coping with problems of her own. And imagine a young woman, Percy Talbott by name, who’s freshly released from five years in prison and shows up in town because she saw a photo of its surrounding woods and decided it’d be a good place for a fresh start.

That’s the setup for The Spitfire Grill, an intimate 2001 musical that’s based on a 1996 movie of the same name, and that’s enjoying an engaging production through June 23 from the musical-theater specialists of Tigard’s Broadway Rose Theatre Company.

Nothing’s big and brassy about The Spitfire Grill. It’s a quiet sort of musical, almost folkloric in its spinning-out of its tale, and Broadway Rose’s production captures that sense of expectant inevitability. You might find yourself, as I did on opening weekend, anticipating where the story was going to go next, and mostly being right about it. That’s all right: All sorts of stories, including folk tales, follow patterns, concentrating on the journey rather than the surprise.

“Gilead,” of course, is the name of the ruthlessly male-dominated nation in which Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is set, and an emerging feminist awareness is a part of the story in The Spitfire Grill. But I think the town’s name might be more closely tied to the lyrics of an old spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead / To make the wounded whole; / There is a balm in Gilead / To heal the sin-sick soul.”

There are wounds and sins aplenty to deal with in this story, but the sense of a balm — something that will make things better — is core to the play, and it’s a movable balm, sometimes inherent to the town itself, sometimes brought in from the outside world. The play captures both the suffocating and liberating aspects of small-town life, and takes its pot shots at big-city ways, but mostly balances the two in a balm of acceptance. It’s a story of unlike people discovering their likenesses, and in the midst of it all a Big Idea emerges — an idea that at the least causes a good amount of uproar at the post office.

Director Abe Reybold has assembled an appealing small cast of singer-actors, led by Malia Tippets as Percy, the defensive interloper with the suspicious prison past who takes a job at the Spitfire as both server and cook, and Sharon Maroney as Hannah, the Spitfire’s boss, who’s lost a husband and a son and is getting older and more bitter, and is reluctant to admit that she needs help. This is mainly Percy’s story, and eventually both her inherent qualities and the secret of her prison term spool out, but all in good time.

They’re joined by Dave Cole as a surprisingly empathetic sheriff, Lisamarie Harrison as the town busybody, Danielle Valentine as a shyly self-liberating fellow worker at the diner, Brian Kennedy as her hard-working and strict-minded husband, and Joe Thiessen as a mysterious and shaggy-bearded stranger.

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The Spitfire Grill isn’t a perfect play. Things can seem a bit pat, and the music seems to me more adequate than inspired (you may well disagree), though it’s well-performed by both the singers and the house band. There is also, I think, more humor that could be spun out of the script — not to transform the show into a comedy, but to provide a little better balance between the light and dark. But what’s here is good, solid, and moving: a tale well-told.

A big week for openings

This weekend in Portland theater has some big openings, led by Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s at Portland Center Stage; our orange sky, the latest in playwright Chrisopher Oscar Peña’s string of shows for Profile Theatre; and the return of Matilda: The Musical at Portland Playhouse.

From left: Pascal Arquimedes, Lauren Steele, and Andrea Vernae in the 2024 Syracuse Stage production of "Clyde's," which is co-produced by and transfers to Portland Center Stage, opening Friday, June 7. Photo: Michael Davis
From left: Pascal Arquimedes, Lauren Steele, and Andrea Vernae in the 2024 Syracuse Stage production of “Clyde’s,” which is co-produced by and transfers to Portland Center Stage, opening Friday, June 7. Photo: Michael Davis

Did I mention the play about the ex-con who works in the kitchen of a greasy spoon? No, I’m not talking about The Spitfire Grill again. But there are certain similarities, at least on the surface, between it and Clyde’s, the Lynn Nottage comedy that opens Friday, June 7, at Portland Center Stage. The action takes place in a diner (Clyde’s), and the kitchen staff is made up of workers who’ve spent time in the slammer. (As anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant can attest, a kitchen can be a kind of prison, too.)

From there, things diverge a bit. Clyde’s, which opened on Broadway in the pandemic depths of 2021, has since been one of the most-produced shows across the country, and was nominated for a best-play Tony. It joins Nottage’s pair of Pulitzer-winners — Ruined and Sweat — as a genuine hit, and although it has its serious side, it’s funnier than either of her Pulitizer plays.

“Though it’s still about dark things, including prison, drugs, homelessness and poverty, it somehow turns them into bright comedy,” The New York Times’s Jesse Green wrote in his enthusiastic review of the play’s New York debut. “… (W)e learn that, unlike Oedipus and his mom, people who may have little else nevertheless have choices.”

Clyde (played at Center Stage by Andrea Vernae) is something of the boss from hell (we’ve all had ’em), and among the many cul de sacs of the plot, the quest for a perfect sandwich drives the story. Enough said. Center Stage’s Clyde’s is a co-production with Syracuse Stage, where it’s already played, allowing the cast to get thoroughly comfortable with the story and the characters.

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Playwright Christopher Oscar Peña (left) and director Evren Odcikin during rehearsal for "our orange sky." Photo: Alec Lugo
Playwright Christopher Oscar Peña (left) and director Evren Odcikin during rehearsal for “our orange sky.” Photo: Alec Lugo

Profile theatre and playwright Christopher Oscar Peña continue their fruitful collaboration with the June 8 premiere of Peña’s newest play, our orange sky, which was commissioned by Profile. It’s Profile’s third play by Peña in the past two seasons, following How To Make an American Son and awe/struck. See Marty Hughley’s ArtsWatch interview with Peña here, and Darleen Ortega’s ArtsWatch review of awe/struck here.

This newest chapter in the Peña-Profile book turns to the story of Orlando (Matthew Sepeda, who also performed in Profile’s production of Peña’s How To Make an American Son), an outwardly hyper-successful fellow who, feeling a gap in his life, returns to his childhood home. Shocks ensue. It’ll be intriguing to see what shape they take, and how things turn out. Turkish American director Evren Odcikin, whose career has taken him to major theaters throughout the country (including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he’s directed Macbeth and Mona Mansour’s unseen) directs.

From 5 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 9, Profile Artistic Director Josh Hecht will host a conversation with Peña in the library at The Heathman Hotel.

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Susannah Mars is menacing Miss Trunchbull and Nia Scott is Matilda in "Matilda: The Musical." Photo: Shawnte Sims
Susannah Mars is menacing Miss Trunchbull and Nia Scott is Matilda in “Matilda: The Musical.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

 Matilda: The Musical, which enjoyed a hit run at Portland Playhouse last fall (see Darleen Ortega’s ArtsWatch review here), is coming back for an encore run. Based on Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s novel Matilda, the musical returns for a victory lap June 7-30.

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In Salem, Pentacle Theatre is opening Rebecca Gilman’s Boy Gets Girl on Friday, June 7; it’ll continue through June 29. Gilman’s stage thriller begins as a romcom and turns into something very different. It all begins with a blind date — and while love can indeed be blind, blind dates aren’t always about love: Things can turn obsessive. As Variety noted, Boy Gets Girl is “a suspenseful tale about the unraveling of a strong woman’s sense of security in the urban jungle.”

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Jane: A Theatre Company is back with a new Hullabaloo! The company, founded by Kim Bogus and dedicated to the proposition that “every person should have the opportunity to experience the magic of live theater,” helps make that possible by keeping its performances free (although it does gratefully accept donations).

Performances are June 7-16 at the little 21ten Theatre in Southeast Portland, and exactly what will transpire is a bit of an open question, but the company urges audiences to “meet characters from past Hullabaloos! Hear their stories and songs. Laugh and sing and dance along.” Jane describes itself as “an independent collective of creatives, championing artists of all diversities. We integrate theater, dance, music and visual arts to tell stories which expose issues important to women,” and that seems worthy of a laugh and a song and a dancing-along.

Oregon Children’s Theatre’s “Urgent Request” for help

On Tuesday afternoon Oregon Children’s Theatre, a stalwart of Portland’s theater scene for 35 years, sent out an “urgent request to secure our future.” The company, which performs in downtown’s Newmark and Winningstad theaters and which also operates a school and an adventurous teen performing company, said it is facing a financial crisis.

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“The reality of rising costs to produce our work—from the cost of materials to increased rental and labor costs—has forced us to scale back, producing fewer shows in our season and offering fewer classes,” the company declared. “Arts organizations have been hit especially hard in the last year, with additional funding from government sources and foundations becoming more scarce. Families have been slow to return to the theatre, meaning ticket revenue was lower than anticipated. We know that, for many families, there is a real financial strain and the cost of attending live theatre is a luxury many can no longer afford. We recognize that we simply cannot continue raising ticket prices to compensate for rising costs.

“The future of the company—and the livelihoods of a whole community of artists, technicians, teachers, and support staff—are on the line during this uncertain time. Our goal is to raise $150,000 or more as soon as possible.”

Donation information is here.  

Awards report: Kwik Jones and Patrick Page

Kwik Jones at the NAACP Theatre Awards ceremony. Photo courtesy Kwik Jones.
Kwik Jones at the NAACP Theatre Awards ceremony. Photo courtesy Kwik Jones.

A couple of Oregon theater people took home more than the bacon from recent theater awards ceremonies. On Monday, June 3, Portland playwright Kwik Jones and the production of his play Man’s Favor, Devil’s Plan won in six categories at the 30th annual NAACP Theatre Awards, presented by the Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Branch in partnership with the City of Los Angeles. And earlier, actor Patrick Page, who grew up in Monmouth and has performed at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and elsewhere around the state as well as on and off-Broadway, won the Outer Critics Circle Award in New York for Outstanding Solo Performance for his Shakespearean show All the Devils Are Here.

The categories in which Jones and Man’s Favor, Devil’s Plan won at the NAACP awards:

  • Best Playwright for a 99 seat theater, Kwik Jones.
  • Best Male Lead for a 99 seat, Matt Jennings.
  • Best Female Supporting for a 99 seat, Christina Childress.
  • Best Male Supporting for a 99 seat, Nic Few.
  • Best Music Director for a 99 seat, Cydney Wayne Davis.
  • Best Producer for a 99 seat, Ben Guillory.

Jones has been writing plays, and seeing them produced, for 30 years. This summer his short play The Blind Thief will be performed at the Black Men Talk Play Festival in Chicago. As he explains his artistic strategy: “Keep your fingers on the keys. Write to stay free. Grind daddy grind.”

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Page grew up in a theater family: His father taught theater at what is now Western Oregon University, in Monmouth, and both father and son took to the stage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. In his acceptance speech at the Outer Critics Circle awards ceremony (watch the video below) he talked about those early days, and learning to love Shakespeare, and haunting the college library to read about the great performers in their great Shakespearean roles. It’s something of an oratorical love letter to the theater, and to how he found his passion in the midst of the theater world.

Patrick Page’s acceptance speech at the Outer Critics Circle Awards.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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