Mammoth Cave, constructed of glue and newspapers, sits atop Pioneer Playhouse’s outdoor stage to provide a stand-in of the actual Mammoth Cave that is about 112 miles from the theater and campground. The famous cave sets the scene for “Death by Darkness,” an award-winning play by Danville’s own Elizabeth Orndorff.
Orndorff won Best Play and Best Playwright Awards at the International Mystery Writers Festival in 2007 for the script, which was her first full-length play.
Set in 1842, it focuses on a group of tourists viewing the cave. The tour is led by slave and guide Stephen Bishop. Bishop’s knowledge of the cave surpassed anyone at that time, but as the title suggests, this tour does not go smoothly.
“Death by Darkness” was first produced at the Playhouse in 2008, and it was a hit.
Orndorff is excited to have her play back on the Playhouse stage. She said she hopes people will understand and empathize with people in “challenging situations” and be inspired to learn about Mammoth Cave and the history surrounding the longest known cave system in the world.
“Liz is a seventh generation Kentuckian,” Playhouse managing director Heather Henson said. “She is Kentucky.”
This year, the play is being brought to the stage under the direction of Anthony Haigh, a longtime member of the Playhouse family, who recently retired from Centre College after 26 years in the classroom and in the theater.
“It will be fun to see it with a different cast and under different direction,” Orndorff says.
Liz is a seventh generation Kentuckian. She is Kentucky.
Pioneer Playhouse managing director Heather Henson
The play is one of two “Kentucky Voices” plays that will be on the Playhouse stage this summer. The series presents a new play about Kentucky and/or by a Kentucky playwright each season. Usually, the Playhouse only features one “Kentucky Voices” play a year, but to celebrate the 10th year of the series, another play was added to the schedule.
The second “Kentucky Voices” play is “Guarded,” a sequel to “Grounded,” both by Kentucky novelist Angela Correll.
”We are excited about doing two plays,” Henson said.
Stephen Bishop will be portrayed by returning actor Joshua Jerome, who starred in “Good Blues Tonight!,” last summer’s “Kentucky Voices” play, written by Playhouse Artistic director Robby Henson, Heather’s brother.
“He is talented,” Robby Henson said of Jerome. “We are really excited about him.”
The idea to write a story about Stephen Bishop came after Orndorff’s son’s family visited her after a trip to Mammoth Cave. After learning about the history, “I knew I had a story,” she recalled.
Orndorff is not the only Danville native inspired by the story of Bishop. After Heather Henson, who is also an author, saw the original production of “Death by Darkness,” she wrote a children’s book, “Lift Your Light a Little Higher.” The book, published September 2016, is a deeper dive into the life of the slave and guide and his knowledge of the cave.
Henson’s book sparked the idea to revive “Death by Darkness.”
After the revival of “Death by Darkness,” the Playhouse has four more plays and a comedy weekend featuring Jimmie Walker.
Heather Henson said there are a lot of new faces at the Playhouse this summer, but she said the essential element is the audience: “Loyal patrons who come year after year … we could not do it without them.”
If you go
When: June 9-Aug. 19
June 9-24: “Death by Darkness”
June 27-July 8: “Drinking Habits”
July 11-22: “Guarded
July 25-Aug. 5: “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery”
Aug. 8-19: “Elvis Has Left the Building”
Aug. 24-26: Special Comedy Weekend
Showtimes: Dinner is served at 7:30 p.m., and showtime is 8:30 Tuesdays-Saturdays.
Where: 840 Standford Road, Danville
Tickets: $32 for dinner and show; $18 for show only. Ages 12 and younger: $17 for dinner and show; $10 for show only
Note: Shows are rain or shine. An indoor theater will be used in inclement weather.