Stage & Dance

In retirement, Lexington actor-playwright Walter May gets even more productive

In Gone Astray, playwright Walter May, right, portrays George, the father of prodigal son Albert (Eric Seale), in the Actors Guild of Lexington production.
In Gone Astray, playwright Walter May, right, portrays George, the father of prodigal son Albert (Eric Seale), in the Actors Guild of Lexington production.

Walter May has retired.

I probably have to tell you that, because you really wouldn't know it by his public profile as an active member of the Hope Center board and a theater artist.

This weekend, Actors Guild of Lexington opened the world premiere production of May's Gone Astray, an adaptation, set in Eastern Kentucky, of the biblical parable of the prodigal son.

In addition to continuing to work on the script, May is acting in the show as the patriarch who welcomes his flameout son home.

"I have the advantage that I never get my lines wrong because I can always claim it's a rewrite," May says during an interview Tuesday morning at his Lexington home.

Maybe that is your clue May has geared down: He can be found during the day at home, relaxing and working in his spacious wing of the house, which includes a wall filled with photos from May's theater career and a library of scripts and stage literature.

May's regular job was as a lawyer, and he closed his practice when 21c Museum Hotels bought the downtown building where his office was.

"I'm 64 and I was going to wind it up in a year or two anyway," says May, who notes he has a few legal responsibilities to finalize before he is completely retired.

But clearly, the law is no longer occupying his full attention, and he has had an active theater life for years as one of Lexington's handful of members of Actors Equity, the stage actors union. He had a busy period in the early 2000s, when he performed in 16 plays in three years in Lexington, Horse Cave and Cincinnati.

But writing has long been a part of his life, too, including a play called A Measure of Respect, which Actors Guild produced during the 1980s. May's play Broken was mounted at AGL in 2011.

He says writing "has come to me in times I was not acting. Whenever I haven't been able to satisfy whatever it is in me that urges me toward some creative activity, I turn to writing. I did it back in the '80s, when I didn't act at all between '76 and '89."

That was when he and his wife, Ann Render, were raising their children. Through the 1990s, May was much more active onstage. When that tapered off, he got involved in the Kentucky Voices writing program with playwright and actress Liz Bussey Fentress at now-closed Horse Cave Theatre. That is where Broken and Gone Astray emerged.

"It was a way to force me to get work done," May says. "My brother once said the most creative force in the universe is a deadline. It's true.

"Every two weeks, I had to produce something I felt good about, and I do. I feel a lot better about these plays than the ones I wrote in the '80s."

A common thread in May's work is "healing broken relationships," which he says relates in some ways to his work for the Hope Center, the men's emergency shelter where he is director of special projects.

"I have been immersed in the lives of people whose lives have been broken by one thing or another," says May, who writes the stories of clients for the Hope Center's newsletter. "That certainly comes through in Broken, and I think it comes through to a certain extent in this play, because you're talking about people whose lives have been damaged in one way or another, and it's about trying to find a way to heal the damage.

"One fellow I wrote about said to me, 'The Hope Center was the last house on the block.' He had already been through the others and couldn't go back."

One of the characters in the two-character Broken was a woman whose substance abuse and mental health problems left her homeless, which May says are common reasons people end up on the streets.

The prodigal son is, of course, the story of a child of privilege who decides to take his inheritance and leave home, only to come crawling back to dad after he has blown it all and has nowhere else to go.

Actors Guild artistic director Eric Seale first encountered the script in the spring, when he participated in a reading for the theater group New Works Inc.

"What I knew of Walter's writing was Broken," Seale says. "So I was really surprised by how funny this was. There are some really great moments of humor in this show, and as we worked on it, I said, 'I'd really like to do this at Actors Guild and give it a full production."

In addition to directing Gone Astray, Seale is playing the prodigal son.

"The script is much stronger now than it was at the beginning of the process," May says. "The arc of the story is not different in any way, but the telling is tighter, better paced and clearer."

It has been his focus for several months

May says he doesn't have anything new in the works. But come next Sunday, when Gone Astray closes, he will have time to create something.


'Gone Astray'

What: World premiere production of Walter May's play, based on the story of the prodigal son.

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 23, 24; 2 p.m. Aug. 18, 25.

Where: Actors Guild of Lexington, 4383 Old Harrodsburg Rd.

Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students and seniors, $10 military. Available at 1-866-811-4111 or