Denis Harrington was well into his 60s when he started writing plays. And it wasn’t long until he bumped into Asa Bidwell, the aging con man who formed the centerpiece of one of his first plays.
"I always had this character in the back of my mind, so I devised a story about him," said Harrington, 72, a Burke resident whose play "The Sundowner" will be performed by the Greenspring Players in early June.
The character is based on Alvin "Titanic" Thompson, the infamous con man of the mid-1900s, one of many colorful personalities whom Harrington met during his over 40 years as a journalist. Work for the Gannett chain of newspapers brought Harrington to Northern Virginia nearly 25 years ago, when he was a sports reporter for USA Today. Although he had been published in magazines and books, writing plays didn’t happen until Harrington had nearly reached what many consider retirement age.
"What you’re doing is pulling out drawers of experience with the audience," said Harrington of his style of playwriting.
"The Sundowner" follows Bidwell through a con that he attempts in his twilight years. The cast is small, but each character is vital, according to those producing the play.
"It has such a diversity of characters. Every one of the characters in the show influences Ada in a way he doesn’t think they will," said Patricia Bonser, the play’s producer and a Greenspring resident.
"The Sundowner" has only been performed one other time, at the Hilton Center for the Performing Arts in Albany, N.Y., in 2002. Harrington finished the play in 2000, and after hearing about the Greenspring Players theater company, made a call to see if they would give his play a reading.
"At our age, we’ve seen an awful lot of plays, and some plays more than once, so to do an original play is kind of exciting," said Doreen Provost, the play’s director. A play-reading group at Greenspring read 15 scripts before narrowing the field to six, then deciding on "The Sundowner." The idea of performing an original play whose two main characters are senior citizens also appealed to Bonser.
"I think the residents like to see plays about people in their age group," said Bonser.
THE SHOW features a cast of only eight, and since no men originally tried out for the lead role, that went to Adron Krekeler, an "outsider" who performed with the Greenspring Players for "Spider’s Web" previously. Greenspring resident Frances Hueneman was cast as the female lead, a widower whose fortune Bidwell takes a shine to in the interest of fleecing her. Of the eight cast members, two are "outsiders," one is a Greenspring staff member, and the remaining five are residents. It’s a team effort, explained Provost, as two other Greenspring residents, Mal Searle and Jim McLuckie, built the entire set.
"It’s kind of ambitious, but they’re doing a beautiful job," she said.
An illness by Hueneman forced the play to be pushed back a month, and it will now be performed on June 7, 8, 10, and 12.
Harrington has written four other full plays, including "The Politics of Murder," a murder mystery set in Washington, D.C., which will be performed in El Paso, Texas next month.
Next month’s performance of "The Sundowners" will be Harrington’s first chance to see the play in person, and he said having the Greenspring Players perform it will add a new dimension to the play.
"I’m interested in it, because of the people of this age group. The feedback I got from them, they see things a little differently in some situations," he said. "A lot of them have had full lives, careers, I’m sure in their travels, they’ve met somebody like this guy."
Greenspring is hoping to do the play justice, when the author is in the house on opening night.
"It’s not a world premiere," said Provost. "But it’s certainly a Virginia premiere."