"Stay for Dinner"

Caitlin Stafford and Michael Ackerman will be reprising their roles as Halloween haunted house workers in Becky Hill McLaughlin’s play “Stay for Dinner” on Thursday in the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival in New York.

By day, the haunted house actors play a deranged chef and the severed head on her gory buffet table. By night, they just might be falling in love.

That’s the basic premise of “Stay for Dinner,” a play by Becky Hill McLaughlin. The 2003 graduate of Madison County High School will be presenting it this week in the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival in New York City.

The competition is bringing McLaughlin, an actor and writer who homeschools her three children in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one step closer to her longtime dream of becoming a playwright. Her work was among the top 30 selected from among about 900 contest entries to be presented during this week’s festival.

“Just to be in the top 30, I’m on cloud nine,” McLaughlin said. “And the top six plays of the 30 get published.”

McLaughlin was pleased to learn that her play will go last in Thursday night’s rotation.

Four actor friends from Winston-Salem will accompany McLaughlin to New York, including the two main characters — Caitlin Stafford, who plays Jenny, and Michael Ackerman, who plays Joe. Once they reach New York, they’ll team up with four actors there for “an epic rehearsal” to merge the cast members before performance time.

Stafford also has Madison County ties; she and McLaughlin attended middle school and high school together in Madison, and her parents live in Culpeper.

“Stay for Dinner” isn’t McLaughlin’s first show to land in the spotlight. “Sunshine Boy,” her most recent play, was a finalist in the 2019 Winston-Salem 10-Minute Play Festival. McLaughlin, who studied theater at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has written several short plays for her friend Stafford’s Spirit Gum Theatre. When Stafford planned a Halloween season fundraiser of spooky short pieces for her theater company, McLaughlin was happy to help submit plays.

“Stay for Dinner” was among them.

“It’s a love story that takes place in a haunted house,” McLaughlin said. “I love Halloween, so it spoke to my heart.”

Stafford encouraged her friend to enter “Stay for Dinner” in the Samuel French festival. As the play started vaulting over the competition, trying to stay cool didn’t last long.

“I was really using it for the experience,” McLaughlin said. “I was trying to practice being brave, but then it made the semifinals.”

Although she’s trying not to get her hopes up, “I’m definitely looking to make some connections,” she said. “I’m looking more to meet some playwrights and just observe.”

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