An Ex-Con in Gilead

The Spitfire Grill Brings New Life to SBCC

Every season is marked by loss and rebirth, and it is only when one season ends that another can begin. Just ask Rick Mokler, associate professor of theatre arts at Santa Barbara City College and director of the greatly anticipated Central Coast premiere of Spitfire Grill, which opens March 10 and runs through March 25. Mokler ended his 17-year career as an English teacher to pursue one in theater arts, and since then he has been a leader in the Santa Barbara theater scene. Perhaps it is Mokler’s own experience with self re-invention that allows him such a strong sense of kinship with this musical story about embracing new beginnings. After the main character Percy Talbot is released from prison, she seeks a fresh start in the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin. While becoming friends with the strong-willed owner of the Spitfire Grill, Hannah Ferguson, Percy and the entire Gilead community are transformed, embodying the essence of new beginnings and representing the cycle of life itself.

The Spitfire Grill has itself gone through a number of different incarnations. It began as a 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff, and received the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival in that year. In 2000 the story was adapted into a musical by James Valq and Fred Alley. According to Mokler, the play is “about forgiveness and most of all being able to forgive ourselves and move forward.”

He goes on to say that he “chose The Spitfire Grill because [he] liked the music and [thinks] it’s a lovely story. The audience can expect to feel as if they are in a small country town.

“I also like the fact that the show is written very specifically, so it is clear what direction things are supposed to go,” Mokler continued. “Our rendition of the play is pretty close to the movie, except for the ending. The play does not have a tragic ending like the movie.”

The Spitfire Grill is the second play of the theater season at Santa Barbara City College. With a cast of seven people, the play is not the largest in terms of cast and characters.

“Scenically, this is the second largest production we’re having this season,” Mokler said. “But as far as casting is concerned, it is the smallest.”

With a cast of seven people, the small-town feeling is not only exemplified through the characters’ relationships, but also through the cast’s real-life relationships as well.

“The cast is very experienced and talented,” Mokler said. “They have all worked together in the past and know what to expect from each other.”

Julie Anne Ruggieri plays the newly emancipated Percy Talbott. Ruggieri is a Carpinteria native and has appeared in 14 different local productions, including Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera’s Gun Fighter and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Katie Thatcher plays Spitfire Grill owner Hannah Ferguson. She has also performed in more than a dozen SBCC Theater Group productions, including The Secret Garden and The Heidi Chronicles.

The play also includes Bill Egan who plays Caleb Thorpe, Holly Ferguson as Shelby Thorpe, Rod Lathim as Sheriff Joe Sutter, Margaret Prothero as Effy Krayneck, and Nicholas Sullberg as the visitor.

The seven cast members will have no problem moving around on the life-sized set, which was built specifically for this production.

“I think our Grill is more realistic than the ones in other productions,” Mokler said.

Walking on the nearly finished set, it feels as if the Grill really exists. The set is movable, and includes a backdrop of painted trees that flow into the foreground, creating depth.

The tree motif is a metaphor for the changing seasons and for nature’s cycle of life, said Mokler. There is even a tree stump where food is left for an unknown creature that comes around only at night. “As you can see,” said Mokler, snickering, “the play has some Gothic elements.”

If audience members need more than the show’s country rock music to feel like they are in Gilead, Wisconsin, then the old, small-town diner appearance of the set will surely do it for them. Among the many props, a vintage 1930s cash register stands out as especially evocative of a time and place now quite remote.

“The Spitfire Grill is an uplifting play with a talented cast,” said Mokler. “There has been a good response from the community thus far, and the play hasn’t even begun.”

4•1•1 The Spitfire Grill previews on March 8 and 9; the regular run goes from March 10 to March 25. For ticket information, contact the Garvin Theatre at 965-5935.

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