CARTERVILLE - John A. Logan College's O'Neil Auditorium set the stage for Southern Illinois' newest drama Friday and Saturday night, playing host to community actors during the debut performance of Marion playwright Jeffery W. Hale's original drama, "Choices."
Hale, a JALC graduate, said the idea for the play originated when he discovered the news of Princess Diana Spencer's untimely death in 1997, after the car she was riding in crashed in Paris.
"I was a big, big fan of hers and I was very sad when she was killed and I needed some way--because I deal with my feelings through writing--I wanted to create a piece of work in which her death affected people in a small, American town because I come from a small, American town," he explained.
The play centers around the married Andy Mason--portrayed by Josh Bernstein--and his desire to revisit the choices he made as a younger man, including his failure to pursue his high school sweetheart as she journeys to Los Angeles. Set in modern-day Philadelphia, the play begins after his wife, Karen, voices her desire for a divorce because of Andy's inability to commit to herself and their teenage son.
"I wanted the audience to have a sense that Andy has made a big life for himself, he's gotten out of the small town, but the small town keeps pulling him back," Hale said.
With his wife out of town, Andy returns to his hometown of Summerfield, where visits with his friends reignite memories of high school and young adulthood, including his romance with Emily. The televised screening of Princess Diana's funeral on Sept. 5, 1997, serves as a background for the play's climactic events, including Andy's decision to finally profess his love for Emily and Emily's decision to leave her small town.
"There are Summerfields in many American states," he explained. "The reason I choice Summerfield is because I wanted it to feel like it could be a small town anywhere."
Adam Floro, the play's director, has been with the play since 2013, but said the script and plot have undergone several changes since then. "At the time, 'Choices' was a one-act play," he said, explaining that script ended after Emily leaves for Los Angeles in search of a better life. "Here we are four years later, having expanded it into a full-length play this time around."
Hale said that after those performances, people kept asking him about what happened to the various characters, including Emily. After much thought, he decided to expand the play into a feature-length production, adding various characters such as Doc Reynolds and Steve Anderson, played by Sam Foskey and Chris Jennings.
"I started writing the script in December. I took a long time because I wanted it to be just right because I wanted to pay tribute to Princess Diana but I really wanted to show the love story; Andy really loves Emily. But it's also a story about the choices that we make and everything that can cost us," he said. "Really, it's about the healing power of old friendships and it's about the restoration of Andy's family, and he can only do that when he comes to terms with his past."
While Hale was excited to see the on-screen production, he was equally proud of the actors who brought his text to life.
"I can't be prouder of the actors," Hale enthused. "They have worked on such a fast-paced rehearsal schedule ... they worked very quickly and began their rehearsals Memorial Day."
Marion's own Bethany Rentfro, 20, portrayed Andy's main love interest, Emily. A JALC student, Bethany said she identified early on with the struggles of her character.
"I think just the fact that Emily is a lot like me in the fact that she wants to get out of her hometown and travel and see the world," she said.
To bring Emily's story to life, Rentfro thoroughly Princess Diana's life in order to see how her character related to the woman's untimely death.
"I was born the year that Princess Diana died, so I had to do a lot of research on Princess Diana and research how a lot of people would have felt," Rentfro explained. "I didn't realize how loved that she was by so many people until doing this show."
Rentfro is currently an undeclared major at JALC, but said this experience ignited a dramatic interest. "I would love to be in future productions," she said.
While the play was limited to a two-night run, Hale said a DVD copy of the performance will be made available for purchase. Proceeds from the show and sales of the DVD will go to the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Fund, which benefits those affected by the 2016 wildfires in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tenn., as well as The Halo Trust, a worldwide charity dedicated to the removal of land mines from war-torn countries.
"Of course the land mines is a tribute to Princess Diana," Hale said, referring to Princess Diana's tireless desire to both ban and remove anti-personnel land mines around the world.