Coming Home to Our Town

Peg O’Keef ’81 returns to the Rollins stage as the lead in the Thornton Wilder classic.

The upcoming production of Our Town will be something of a small-town homecoming for Peg O’Keef ’81, as she returns to the Annie Russell Theatre on the campus where she found her life’s calling.

The beloved play about the passing of precious time and dear lives in a small, New England town holds a special place for O’Keef, who is the veteran of many Central Florida theater productions and a former instructor at Rollins College.

“This play is Americana,” she says. “It’s sweet, but it also tells a hard, hard truth. It’s like cotton candy covering up barbed wire.”

It also calls up memories for O’Keef in very much the same way it has for audiences who have viewed the eternally appealing play that first opened on Broadway in 1938. More than 30 years ago as a Rollins student, she had a small part—not as an actor—in the Thornton Wilder play that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938 and a Tony Award in 1989.

“I was the props girl,” she says of her role in that earlier Rollins production.

Now, she will portray the mysterious character at the center of the play, who is both a stage manager and a part of the town. While she doesn’t think that her own life experiences ensure the needed wisdom to take on the important role, she believes the play’s framework confers that respect upon the stage manager. “It is a privilege of this role that the character is gifted with omniscience.”

However, the former theater teacher does find an astonishing amount of knowledge and perception in the approximately 40 students who are involved in the production that will offer eight showings between November 14 and November 22. 

“I am so reassured by the wisdom I find in the students,” O’Keef says. “They are bright and discerning. They have a powerful sense of ethics.”

O’Keef said she seized the chance to return to the Rollins stage as soon as Professor of Theater Arts Thomas Ouellette, who is directing the play, broached the idea. But she wasn’t quite expecting all the Rollins memories that it roused.

Indeed, it was at a student production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the little Fred Stone Theatre on campus that she first realized the power of the stage. She was about 12 years old, living in Lake County, and had gone to the show with her father, who was living in Winter Park. “I think he was trying to impress his date,” she says.

The existential play—which had little of the glitz and glamour that might have caught the attention of other kids her age—made a lasting impression on O’Keef.

“It was a happy accident,” O’Keef says. “But it opened the challenges of the heart and mind for me. I saw that the actors were not much older than I was, and from that point, I only wanted to be at Rollins. I wasn’t really formed as a human until I got to Rollins. The theater allowed a shy but curious person like myself to explore the whole world.

Although she could not have expressed at the time, she believes that during that moment at the Fred Stone Theatre she was starting to understand that plays have the power to challenge and change theatergoers. “It works in the same way that our dreams do, breaking all the rules of rationality to teach us a deeper truth.”

As a student, O’Keef also took part in the production of Equus at the Annie Russell in 1979, which ignited a community controversy over a short scene involving nudity. There was outrage, picketing, and threats of arrest, but O’Keef found the whole issue exciting. “The idea that the theater could create that much dialog—the whole campus was unified behind it—it was thrilling.”

Three decades later, she finds herself walking to the back entrance of the Annie Russell Theater along the same steps she took as a student and taking a brief trip back in time. “I touch that door knob and I walk into my eternal community. I am suddenly completely haunted by my 19-year-old self, and I am returning to the community of my beginning.”

For more information about show times, tickets, and upcoming productions, visit rollins.edu/annierussell.