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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