A few years back, actor and playwright Walter May saw a production of St. John Hankin’s “The Return of the Prodigal.” The renown British essayist wrote the play in 1905 and set it in his modern day, which was Edwardian England. May was so moved by Hankin’s story, he decided to re-invision it to be set in his own time and, more specifically, in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky.
The resulting script by the Prestonsburg, Ky., native is called “Gone Astray,” and it’s being produced by the Bunbury Theatre Co. starting Friday, Feb. 19. The story involves the return of a long-lost brother, a tricky romance and incongruent family ambitions set in a blue-collar mining city.
“In Hankin’s play, the father is a mill owner. In mine, he is a road builder,” May tells Insider. “(And) in addition to the father and two sons, I threw in a mother and a young woman.”
Bunbury’s Steve Woodring, who will direct the play, says in the press release that “Gone Astray” starts off relatively quickly. The prodigal son’s homecoming occurs in the very first scene, and there is no celebration.
“His return complicates life for the Claypool family, and from there, things become ever so much more interesting,” explains Woodring. “Closely held family secrets are revealed, and many of the certainties of life in the Claypool household begin to unravel before clarity and redemption finally rule the day — or do they?”
May has been involved in regional theater for more than 25 years, vacillating between acting and playwriting when time allows. He’s written a handful of scripts and had his plays performed by the Actors Guild of Lexington and Horse Cave Theater, among others.
One of his latest projects, titled “This Was Racing: An Evening with Joe Palmer,” is a one-actor show constructed from newspaper clippings by famous turf writer Joe H. Palmer. May has performed it at Keeneland and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
As for “Gone Astray,” the playwright says he hopes people relate to the story’s enduring strengths of the bonds of family. He’d also like them to have a good time.
“I hope they laugh a lot,” May says. “I also hope they leave with an uncontrollable compulsion to recommend it to others. My son has called it ‘funny, sad, poignant and well worth seeing,’ and I hope they agree.”
“Gone Astray” runs Feb. 19-21, 25-28 and March 2-6 at the Henry Clay Building, 604 S. Third St. Tickets are $22 ($19 for seniors and $10 for students). Click here for times and tickets.