Dauphin Island is a barrier island south of Alabama at the Gulf of Mexico. But while it is the titular location in Jeffry Chastang’s new play Dauphin Island at Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where it runs March 23-April 9, the play isn’t set there. In fact, neither of the characters in the two-hander ever get to the island, nor has Chastang ever visited it.
The play follows Selwyn Tate en route from Detroit to Dauphin Island for a new construction job. Leaving behind a messy divorce and time spent living in his car, Tate embarks on a trip to the scenic isle for a new beginning. When his car breaks down, he happens upon Kendra Evans, a woman who has secluded herself in the Alabama woods, and the play follows the two displaced characters as their lives begin to unexpectedly intertwine and a romance emerges.
Chastang landed on the play’s actual location of Lower Peach Tree, Ala., after reading about the town in an obituary. “Just the name caught my interest,” Chastang says with a laugh. “I Googled ‘Lower Peach Tree’ and it was exactly the type of place that Kendra would be living in. She is living in desolation and there may be 50 people in that whole town.”
As for never-reached title location, Chastang was inspired by his cousin who frequents the island. “I looked at some pictures of Dauphin Island online and decided it would be a good place for Selwyn to want to get to,” says Chastang. “It would be such a change from what he has come from.”
Though he has never been to either town, the Michigan-born playwright has roots in Alabama. His family founded the small town of Chastang, Ala., located about 25 miles north of Mobile. The play also marks a reunion with his artistic home. He first worked in ASF’s new-play development program the Southern Writers’ Project (SWP) as an actor, and has since returned to SWP four times to develop his own playwriting work. His plays Blood Divided and Preparations, which also take place in the South, were both developed and produced at ASF.Chastang wrote the characters of Tate and Kendra for actors Esau Pritchett and Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel, whom he met while working at SWP.
He completed Dauphin Island as part of his thesis project last year when he received his MFA in playwriting from Ohio University, and it seemed only fitting that the play’s next journey would be at SWP. Nancy Rominger, associate director of ASF, directed the reading at SWP with Pitchett and VandenHeuvel in the roles. “The stars were aligned,” says Rominger of the cast.
Rominger, the actors, and the dramaturg all stayed on board for the play’s next iteration. The development process from SWP to the main stage season was supported by a TCG Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, a grant which allowed Chastang and the creative team to dive back into the play before mounting the world premiere at Alabama Shakes.
“We did a discontinuous week in the fall, and that gave him more time to work on the piece in a stress-free situation,” says Rominger of the grant. “What an honor to actually work with the playwright and find and craft their story.”
Chastang says the process of picking up the play with the same actors and team has given him the ability to shape the play in new ways and tweak the dialogue.
“There is something really beautiful about Jeff’s writing—he writes these marvelously complicated, messy, and beautifully flawed characters,” adds Rominger. “His dialogue is just so lovely and rich.”
In addition to another ASF production in the books, the world premiere production will mark another achievement for Chastang: After the play opens, he will finally get to visit Dauphin Island.