Runaway Bride, the musical

March 12, 2008 6:04:09 PM PDT
Three years ago, this quiet Atlanta suburb was shaken when a 32-year-old woman named Jennifer Wilbanks, scheduled to get married in a lavish wedding a few days later, went out jogging and failed to return home. Her friends and neighbors joined police in an inch-by-inch search of the normally quiet community that yielded few clues but attracted wide attention. By the time the missing woman turned up safe in New Mexico, the national media had invested too much effort for the story to simply disappear.

All that and more is included in "Runaway Bride," a new musical debuting Thursday at the 267-seat Red Clay Theatre in the town where the drama unfolded. The theater opened less than two years ago in a remodeled building that was once a church and is owned by the city of Duluth.

Shelly Howard, Red Clay's managing partner, said she lived across the street from Wilbanks and fiance John Mason and was in a perfect position to view the real-life drama.

"I thought it was a beautiful story, how everyone dropped what they were doing to look for one of their own," she said. She decided the story would translate well to the stage. "From the theatrical standpoint, it would capture this little community's history ... to have people sit back and see what they participated in."

Howard enlisted Beverly Cantwell, an amateur writer and friend of the theater, to do an outline, then asked actress Deborah Childs, who played the title role in Red Clay's production of "Driving Miss Daisy" earlier this season, to write the script.

This is Childs' first script. The veteran stage, film and TV actress produced a rapid-fire, one-act play with 38 brief scenes featuring 20 actors who play 70 characters.

"I interviewed a number of people around here, getting their experiences. We have the news media, local people and some faxes that were sent to City Hall during that time. There are little elements of reality," she said.

Popular songs, such as "Stand By Me" and "Runaway," help advance the story.

Red Clay has hosted Equity productions, such as "Educating Rita," and non-Equity community shows, including a recent production of "Arsenic and Old Lace." "Runaway Bride" is not an Equity show but features some professional actors.

Wilbanks, who first claimed she had been abducted, soon acknowledged that she had run off on her own and had taken a series of bus rides before calling home from Albuquerque, N.M. She draped a towel over her head when she was picked up at Atlanta's airport to avoid having to face the media. She eventually pleaded no contest to telling police a phony story and was sentenced to probation and community service. Her breakup with her fiance included an exchange of lawsuits.

Gathering in a grocery store, characters in the play express various viewpoints, with a shopper played by Tootoo Cirlot summing it up simply: "I can't believe she never called her mama."

When the story runs dry, reporters drop it and run off in pursuit of Britney Spears and other celebrities.

"It's the generic story of a community, a lighthearted, entertaining musical of how people in the community came together for a particular cause," said Duluth City Council member Jim Dugan, a season ticket-holder who plans to see the show.