News Column

Down at the grill, they're cooking up a fresh start

October 4, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 04--Becky Saunders showed her comedic side in "Church Basement Ladies," and her sass in "Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks."

When the veteran actress takes on the role of Hannah, the burdened cafe owner in "The Spitfire Grill," which opens a month-long run at Sierra Repertory Theatre's East Sonora Theatre today, Saunders will reveal her dramatic skill.

"I just love to act," said Saunders, who is appearing in her third SRT production of the season, a record high for her. "The challenge of acting for me is to get as far away from your own self, do something challenging, hard to do because it's not you. This woman, of all the women I've played this year, is the furthest from me in so much as the secrets she has, a bitterness she's created in her life because of her failure to face certain truths. She's so different than I am. It's harder to play, requires thinking. I'm pretty excited, but feeling more vulnerable as an actress."

That she can pull off the role in the ensemble piece about the people brought together in Hannah's cafe in Gilead, Wis., is not in question, according to director Scott Viets.

"She is extremely versatile," Viets said. "From one character to the next, she's a chameleon. She's able to embody any character you throw at her. ... The thing about her acting is you never see her acting."

A natural on the stage who can also sing, Saunders is asked to explore a darker character in "The Spitfire Grill."

The musical, which Viets calls a two-hour play with music as opposed to a big, splashy song-and-dance musical, tells the story of Percy, a young woman who arrives in Gilead after five years in prison and lands a job at the Spitfire Grill. She's looking to make a new life for herself but is surrounded by a town of people who have lost hope.

"They don't even realize it," Viets said. "It's a mining town. There's not much to do there. Twenty-five years previously, the town was fresh and full of life. Through the course of events, people stop caring. The whitewash fades, the paint cracks, the sidewalk cracks, the grill hasn't been taken care of.

"Then this person comes in and she, without trying -- and she's the most broken of all -- starts making people aware (and think) 'If we do this with the grill, maybe that could provide hope and change.' "

If Percy ignites a change, she is not, in Viets' words, "Mary Poppins."

"She's a gritty tomboy, rough, argumentative," said Elizabeth McMonagle, a Wisconsin native who will play Percy in her first SRT production. "She's not a typical protagonist. She's not a lovely, bright-eyed gal. She's an ex-convict coming off a five-year prison sentence looking to make a new start. I was a tomboy growing up, and Percy drew me in. She's a jean-wearing, flannel-wearing, hard-edged girl. That was me."

Born and raised in De Pere, Wis., a suburb of Green Bay, McMonagle said she knew the seven characters in "The Spitfire Grill" when she saw a production in Phoenix.

"I immediately turned to my friend and said, 'That's a show I want to do,' " McMonagle said. "It's so endearing, and it felt like home. It's all inclusive. People will identify with it. That's what I felt when I saw it. I identified with the small town. ... All the characters I knew right off the bat."

More than that, "The Spitfire Grill" is "a story of new beginnings. It's so uplifting," McMonagle said.

It's more dramatic fare than recent SRT productions, which have tended toward musicals and comedies, but it's light.

"It's not 'Macbeth' with music," Viets said. "It's very uplifting and soul searching. It's not angst-ridden, or angry. It's about the empowerment of people. It's a little gem."

The character-driven show is moved along with a unique musical score that Viets describes as a blend of country, blues, folk and Broadway music.

"The music is incredible," Viets said. "It's such a big part of the show. It's a style unique to this piece, perfect for the atmosphere, style, the characters. Each character has his or her own motif or theme. It's beautifully crafted by the composer, lyricist and orchestrator."

The music is challenging, McMonagle said, because all of the cast members sing, and there are three-part harmonies and much responsibility placed on each performer.

"It's coming together wonderfully," McMonagle said. "Everyone is top notch, musically, vocally and acting wise."

Contact reporter Lori Gilbert at (209) 546-8284 or lgilbert@recordnet.com.

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(c)2013 The Record (Stockton, Calif.)

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