Gary Linehan, The Union Democrat

The Spitfire Grill may be the last place you want to go for a meal. The hostess is ornery, the food routine and the atmosphere bleak.

On the other hand, Sierra Repertory Theatre is the place to go to catch "The Spitfire Grill," a gripping new musical about life in the tiny town of Gilead, Wis.

It's not Mayberry - people do their jobs out of habit or obligation, not any kind of joy or inspiration - and although everyone seems to want out, no one is able to escape.

But first, a song.

The show opens with freshly released prison inmate Percy Talbott singing "A Ring Around the Moon," in which she envisions a tranquil new life in a remote town based solely on a photograph of "autumn colors along Copper Creek near Gilead, Wisconsin" clipped from a travel magazine.

When her bus arrives in Gilead on a midwinter's night in 1992, she is met by Sheriff Joe Sutter, who reluctantly becomes Percy's parole officer, seeing her as little more than extra work.

He does, however, convince the grill's owner, Hannah Ferguson, to hire the inexperienced Percy as a waitress, since Hannah is alone, aging and in degrading health.

Word soon gets out that the grill has a new employee with a mysterious past, drawing the town's curious residents in for a look.

Among them is Effy Krayneck, Gilead's postmistress and most enthusiastic rumormonger, who gleefully spreads the word that "Something's Cooking at the Spitfire Grill."

When Hannah falls and breaks her leg, Percy is foisted into full management of the grill, which proves especially daunting since she can't cook.

An introverted neighbor, Shelby Thorpe, is then enlisted to help, over the objections of her overbearing husband, Caleb Thorpe, who also happens to be Hannah's nephew.

Meanwhile, Hannah has been trying to sell the Spitfire Grill for 10 years, ever since her son Eli went missing in Vietnam and her husband died several years later.

With no buyers, Hannah agrees to Percy's plan to offer the cafe up in a raffle. Letters begin pouring in from people across the country, each containing $100 and an essay explaining why they want to own the grill.

Through the vision of strangers, the residents of Gilead soon begin to see their town in a new light.

"The Spitfire Grill" began as a 1996 film and was adapted in 2001 as an off-Broadway musical by James Valcq and Fred Alley. It has since become one of the most often produced new American musicals.

Though the score is generally regarded as country-flavored, it actually defies accurate description. Along with a number of enticing ballads, the songs include some complicated rhythms and innovative percussion.

Bringing the play to life are seven highly skilled singers and actors.

Elizabeth McMonagle stars in the central role of Percy Talbott, a damaged soul in an unforgiving world. She proves herself a survivor, both strong and vulnerable, who still can hold out hope for a better life.

SRT favorite Becky Saunders returns as Hannah, turning in a stellar performance as the gritty cafe owner who has her own share of strengths and human weaknesses.

Stephen Brunson effectively plays the bitter and domineering Caleb Thorpe, who has been forced by duty to stay in Gilead far longer than he had wanted.

Suzanne Petrela covers a wide dramatic arc as Shelby Thorpe, appealingly and convincingly emerging from her husband's shadow to become her own vibrant person.

The sheriff is played with aplomb by Evan Faram, who instills the role with depth and complexity.

MJ Jurgensen, who proved a hit in SRT's season opening "Buddy Holly Story," once again commands the spotlight as busybody Effy Krayneck. In addition to drawing big laughs, she is able to bring Effy around as an actual human being.

Wrapping up the cast is TJ Renna, appearing in a silent role known only as "The Visitor."

Though there may be certain points of credibility and predictability that won't be addressed here, the overwhelming emotion of the resolving scenes is more than enough to satisfy any audience.

Scott Viets directs, with a winning set by Jay Heiserman and beautiful lighting by Greg Mitchell.

Costumes are by Austin M. Rausch and property design by Mercy Sharpe.

Musical direction is by Mark Seiver, with remarkable scoring by Sean Paxton.

"The Spitfire Grill" plays through Oct. 27 on the East Sonora stage. For reservations, call 532-3120 or visit