Cobwebs drape a black table sitting in the dimness. A casserole of gory guts rests beside a bloodied candelabra, eyeballs strewn around it. A sign reading “Look Inside” beckons visitors to lift up the gold dome of a serving platter.

Underneath lays a human head that lets out a blood-curdling scream.

The spooky scene finds a home as part of Becky Mclaughlin’s haunted house in her short play “Stay For Dinner.” On a humid Saturday night, a performance of the show in Ardmore Barbershop in Winston-Salem preludes one on a bigger stage. From here, Mclaughlin and the Spirit Gum Theatre Company prepare for New York City, and the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival, where Mclaughlin’s script has advanced to the semi-finals.

“Stay for Dinner,” was selected as one of thirty semi-finalists from more than 900 entries, This earned the small, nomadic theater company based in Winston-Salem a chance to perform during the festival, which will then determine which show moves on to the finals.

The Top 6 pieces earn publication in the Off Off Broadway Festival Plays series. Although this year marks the first time Mclaughlin submitted to the contest, she remarks she has been familiar with it since her first drama classes.

“When I was in high school,” she says, “I used to read the short-play compilation that this competition produces.”

Mclaughlin wrote the play as a Halloween fundraiser for Spirit Gum, and with the company’s support put the play in the running. The second performance of the show sees the only light coming from the open area in the back of the barbershop, screams of cicadas coming in through the open garage door adding to the atmosphere.

Mclaughlin briefly describes her script as a “love story that takes place in a haunted house.” The audience gets glimpses at a play-within-a-play as the two leads don the roles of a murderous chef and the decapitated head she serves for dinner in an attempt to elicit screams from passerby. As the pair lays traps to scare visitors, they slowly realize their feelings for each other.

Between two guests, the chef walks out and leans onto the table, moving the gold dome to the side to reveal the man’s face. Like any other employees with nothing to do, they begin to chat. The conversation shifts to a party, hosted by the haunted house’s resident clown enthusiast, and how they mistakenly avoided each other the whole night. Then the man looks up at her, and suggests they imagine what would happen had they talked.

Like any other employees with nothing to do, the chef and the bodyless man begin to chat. (photo by Shannon Murphy)

Spirit Gum’s Co-Artistic Director Caitlin Stafford, a close friend of Mclaughlin, mentions that the festival provides an opportunity for members of the small, nomadic theater troupe as well.

“If this play gets published,” Stafford says, “then all of the actors will be listed as the original cast.”

As the night in the haunted house dies down, so do the interruptions to the two young tricksters. They take their hypothetical party further into the night, winding up on an imaginary couch clinging to one another during a horror flick. The man mentions a possible kiss. He also mentions that being stuck under a table would make it a little difficult. As the woman leans over the table to kiss him, they don’t notice the two scared girls entering from the previous room. They begin to laugh, and one gives the couple a thumbs up, shouting, “Woo!” before running out.

The comedy within the strange setting fits with Spirit Gum’s vision, according to Stafford. She, along with the other artistic directors, aims to stage lesser-known, newer works that focus on less explored subjects. She credits the contrasting elements of Mclaughlin’s play as a factor in why the play was chosen for the festival, and why it finds a natural home with Spirit Gum.

“We like to support new directors, new actors,” Stafford lists, “and now new writers.”

For more information on Spirit Gum Theatre Company, visit their website or find their page on Facebook.

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