The ‘community’ in theater: STS production mirrors Shandaken’s rising fortunes

Hurricane Irene not only flooded the basement and oil tank of Phoenicia’s STS Playhouse but seemingly affected the theater’s performance schedule. In the general malaise that followed the disaster, people — including actors and theater crew — were drained by the cleanup process and the angst of confronting flooded homes and crumbling creekside streets. The theater’s planned winter show never came to fruition, after several tries at assembling a cast.

The good news is that, along with the upturn of Shandaken’s fortunes and energy this spring, the theater is mounting The Spitfire Grill, a musical about a small town that pulls together in the face of adversity and comes out with a sense of unity and pride. As the Bridge Street Bridge is prepared for reopening, streambank debris is cleared away, hotels and restaurants change hands and get spruced up, STS is blossoming into a new year of community theater, starting with the musical’s opening on Friday, May 25, for a three-weekend run.

Glenn Laszlo Weiss directs a cast of STS regulars and several newcomers: Jax Denise, Ann Davies, Sean Connelly, Deborah Warren, Karen Forray, Rich Quinn, and Shawn Jensen. Musical direction is by Andrew Goodsight.


Based on the award-winning film by Lee David Zlotoff, the play depicts the journey of a young woman just released from prison who decides to start her life anew in a rural Wisconsin town. She gets a job at a restaurant, and when the owner is injured, the parolee takes over — although she doesn’t know how to cook. Script and music are by James Valcq and Fred Alley, with an unusual score tinged with folk and bluegrass.

Weiss, who has directed many plays with his own company, Star Mountainville Players, decided to try the STS Playhouse as a venue and approached the board about doing A Thousand Clowns in the fall. The board agreed and asked if he wouldn’t like to also do a musical this spring, as they were seeking a director.

“The Spitfire Grill seemed like a natural fit for a small town and a good one for where Phoenicia is right now,” says Weiss. “It’s a real warm show, and it’s not strictly a Broadway show. The music has more of a country feel.”

As often happens in community theater, there was difficulty filling the roles. One day a co-worker at Weiss’s job asked if he happened to know of a part for her nephew. At that moment, the play was a month into rehearsals, and male romantic lead still had not been cast. Sean Connelly showed up at the audition having learned one of the songs from the play by listening to it on the Internet.

On the verge of returning to New York City, Connelly didn’t have a car. His life was quickly transformed by the theater community, which provided him with a job, rides from cast members, and a role in Weiss’s next play.

Shawn Jensen, who was doing renovation on another cast member’s house, came to see the playhouse and fell in love with it. Affected by an uncle who was involved in theater, Jensen, according to board president Linda Burkhardt, “has adopted us.” By opening night, his remodeling of the refreshment area and the foyer will be complete — and he has a non-speaking role in the play.

“The Spitfire Grill is a story of conflict and redemption,” says Burkhardt. “The characters are so vivid — you really get to feel who these people are. And the cast have melded together perfectly.”

The theater will be hopping this summer. Although no in-house production has been planned, the space will be rented out for several performances. Lutenist and guitarist Carver Blanchard performs Renaissance and 19th century American music. Arm-of-the-Sea Theater, with its big, whimsical puppets, will give a free performance of The City that Drinks the Mountain Sky, about the Ashokan Reservoir, sponsored by Cornell Cooperative Extension. And Phoenicia’s own rock star, Robert Burke Warren, a.k.a. Uncle Rock, is planning a concert.

The remainder of the season will include STS productions of A Thousand Clowns, Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, The Lady with all the Answers: The Ann Landers Play, and the musical Working based on the Studs Terkel book.

Weekly showings of classic movies continue, have switched from the last Friday of the month to the last Saturday — with showings bumped back if there’s play on. Check the theater website at for details of shows and films.++


STS Playhouse presents The Spitfire Grill, which runs three weekends from May 25 to June 10. Friday and Saturday shows are at 8 pm, and Sunday matinees are at 4 pm. Tickets are $15 for adults, $13 for students, seniors, and STS members. Special Friday night date night price: 2 tickets for $20. All ticket proceeds to the non-profit theater will help continue to repair and refurbish this 125-year-old building. The playhouse is located at 10 Church Street in Phoenicia. For reservations, call (845) 688-2279 or email