The new kid on the St. Pete theater scene is opening its Spring 2022 season with a fresh take on (what is now) an old story. Author and veteran journalist Bill DeYoung and the Off-Central Players bring the story of Captain John Lerro to the stage at Studio Grand Central.
Lerro piloted the freighter that slammed into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge back in 1980, bringing down a section of the bridge, and 35 people with it, in a disaster that remains imprinted on the area more than four decades later.
John should tell you the story himself
“A lot of readers told me that John’s story, which turned out to be quite tragic, really moved them,” DeYoung says, recounting reactions to his 2013 book on the tragedy. “I didn’t set out to ‘redeem his reputation,’ but apparently people thought I had.” Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought It Down is an exhaustively researched account of not just the collapse, but the bridge’s entire history leading up to the accident and the devastating after-effects of that May morning.
“Lerro’s story was just a part of it,” DeYoung says of the book.
The script that would become Mayday: Captain Lerro and the Skyway Bridge developed around the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, only to be delayed by COVID-19.
“There remained a lot of misinformation about who he was, how he got there, and what happened during the storm,” DeYoung says of Lerro. He adds it made sense to write the show in first person for a single actor – (in this case, Michael Horn) – portraying the Captain.
“John should tell you the story himself,” DeYoung says.
Much of the play’s dialogue is taken directly from Lerro’s testimony before the Marine Board of Inquiry, and from interviews he gave to the media over the years. Certain sections are verbatim; others take dramatic license and are paraphrased.
“A large percentage came from things his closest friends – and his family members – told me,” says the playwright. “They knew his thought processes; they knew exactly how he felt about certain things.”
Under the direction of Roxanne Fay, Mayday sold out a three-show run at The Studio@620 in June 2021. Given that success, Ward Smith of the Off-Central Players suggested another run at his company’s home base of Studio Grand Central.
“It’s a beautiful little theater,” DeYoung says, “perfect for a show so intimate.” DeYoung takes over directing duties for the upcoming production, making some changes, but much of Fay’s original direction remains intact.
“A leap of faith was necessary in order for me to pull this off,” DeYoung says, discussing the transition from a book rooted in journalism to an intimate drama about a man undone. “I had to think like John, to write the narrative from his perspective.”