DANVILLE — It's the late 1970s again in the offices of Pioneer Playhouse. The main conference table is strewn with memorabilia of the era's UFO craze that culminated with Steven Spielberg's 1977 hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
There are books and magazines devoted to UFO and alien encounters and, of course, one of the all-time great chroniclers of close encounters, the National Enquirer.
Contained in the Oct. 19, 1976, edition of the supermarket tabloid is one of the most celebrated, and unexplained, cases of alien abduction ever: Three Kentucky women allegedly were taken aboard an alien spacecraft while driving on Ky. 78 between Stanford and Hustonville late on the night of Jan. 6 that year.
The women were put under hypnosis, and they submitted to lie-detector tests. Their stories held up.
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The encounter stands as one of the few unexplained UFO incidents in the United States, and it lives on in the memories of area residents, as the cast and crew of Pioneer Playhouse's latest production have found.
High Strangeness is the latest Kentucky history play presented at the Playhouse, which has made a practice of mounting one play each season that's based on area history. The UFO play comes from the pen of Elizabeth Orndorff, who has written previous playhouse productions about a murder at Mammoth Cave (Death by Darkness, 2008) and the local legend that infamous bank robber John Dillinger spent time in Danville (The Dillinger Dilemma, 2010).
UFOs were right in her wheelhouse.
"I was intrigued that it was so close to us, that it was just in our back yard, Stanford," said Orndorff, who lives in Danville.
She originally wrote High Strangeness for actors at Danville's West T. Hill Community Theatre, where it premiered two years ago.
The play does not recount the literal story of Liberty residents Mona Stafford, Elaine Thomas and Louise Smith, who said they were abducted while driving home from a late-night dinner.
In the historical account, the women — two of whom have died — reported that they had been driving on Ky. 78 when their car came under the control of outside forces. A glowing laserlike beam sucked them off the road. Then, things went blank. When the women awoke, they said, they were in their car, but all were missing about 90 minutes of their memories.
High Strangeness is about three women who go out one night and experience a frightening vision and loss of memory and time, and who end up becoming national celebrities and pariahs when their story is told in the National Enquirer. But it is set in the present day, with cellphones, computers and Papa John's pizza, and it includes other variations on the tale.
"I knew I didn't want to write the play as a docudrama, so it's inspired by that incident, but it's not that incident," Orndorff says. "I just find it more interesting to make up stuff. So I took the basic source material and added to it."
The play's focus is not on the abduction but the aftermath of the incident and its effect on the women.
"It's about what they have to face in getting people to believe what they say and the conflict that creates for them," says guest director JC Conway, who came to Danville from Charleston, S.C., to lead the show.
The women approach the experience in different ways. One is ready to cash in, calling the tabloid and selling alien cookies in her bakery. Another faces the possibility of losing custody of her child if she does not recant the story, which she firmly believes.
"Part of the challenge is to make a comedy that does not make fun of the source material," Conway says. "It's about being in the spotlight, and they're there because everybody wants to believe them, but nobody does."
Orndorff says, "That's the drama."
As for the cast, they are non-committal about what happened to their characters.
"I don't want to decide," says Katie Nykanen, who plays Mene. "Maybe when the play is over, I'll decide."
Mary Hodges, who came in from New York to play Esther, says, "It's clear something happened to them. The real characters were put through the wringer and tested, and I feel like they had a lot more to lose saying what happened to them than they gained."
Since the play was announced, several encounters have illustrated how ingrained the story is in the area. Artistic director Heather Henson had a chance meeting with relatives of Roger Compton, the Navy recruiter to whom the real-life women first told their story, and they ended up inviting Compton to the opening night, which was Tuesday.
Then, at dinner at O'Charley's in Danville, several actors met a nephew of Smith, one of the women who was abducted.
"That's the great thing about doing local history or folklore," Hodges says. "How ironic we are sitting there at dinner, and we meet him.
"It was strange."
(Insert X-Files theme music here.)