When Josh Donahue is out walking his two dogs, he hears now before he sees.
The actor developed keener non-sight senses preparing to play the blind lead in Stage Door Players' latest production, "Butterflies Are Free," opening Friday. He rehearsed in a blindfold and toured of the blind-simulation exhibition Dialog in the Dark at Atlantic Station.
"That was one of the most reawakening things for me," Donahue said. "You realize that you have these other senses. It really kicks your other senses into overdrive."
Heightened senses and awakening adulthood are more central than blindness to "Butterflies Are Free," which was turned into a movie in 1972 starring Goldie Hawn. Set in 1969, this coming-of-age story is a period piece, yet perennially relatable in its emotional themes of commitment versus freedom.
Don (Donahue) arrived in New York City a month ago and is living on his own for the first time, having escaped his overbearing, overprotective mother. He and his free-spirit neighbor Jill, a divorcee at age 18, are hitting it off when his mother (Jo Howarth) comes for a unannounced visit -- "the fly in the lemonade," as director Alan Kilpatrick calls her.
The play is "enduring and endearing," Kilpatrick said, and he hopes that by the end the audience will be rooting for both the mother and the couple.
Megan Hayes drew on her own experiences to play Jill, an aspiring actress. She remembers what it was like to arrive in New York City at 21 to study acting at New York University.
"Everything was so brand new. Scary and overwhelming," said Hayes, who most recently appeared in "Santaland Diaries" with Horizon Theater Company and lists "Belches on Command" as a skill on her resume. "A lot of people say that I'm like the character. At her core, (Jill) is a girl that loves life and is afraid of love."
For Kilpatrick as director, the challenges were in handling the characters' paradoxes. Jill comes off as daffy, yet offers life-changing insights. Don's mother is both a wicked witch and a vulnerable mother bear. Don's blindness has shaped his sheltered upbringing, yet he doesn't make an issue of it.
"It's not until about 14 pages into the script that (Jill) realizes he's blind," he said. So the challenge in blocking and interpretation for Donahue becomes convincingly playing not blind.
Don's blindness crops up in unexpected ways. It allows Jill freedom.
"For the character, it's kind of liberating. She can let her guard down around him," Hayes said. At the same time, she added, actors thrive on eye contact and at first it was jarring not to have that to rely on. But Donahue "is a very generous actor on stage. I always get the sense that he's present."
Kilpatrick remembers 1969 and said it's been a trip down memory lane to listen to the soundtrack playing before the curtain rises and at intermission, full of songs like Simon and Garfunkel's "The Oldest Living Boy in New York" and Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come."
The show's younger cast members have latched onto the emotional themes.
"It's just such a good, inspirational story," Donahue said.
It's the play's "sense of hope" that draws in Hayes.
"What I love so much about this play, it ends with hope, with them giving it a shot."
"Butterflies Are Free" runs through April 10 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. at the Spruill Center for the Arts, 5339 Chamblee Dunwoody Rd. Tickets are $26 for adults, $24 for seniors, $22 for students and $12 for children under age 12, available in advance at 770-396-1726 or online here.
Stage Door Players is also prepping for a casino-themed dinner fundraiser on April 15, from 7 to 10 p.m. Proceeds from the event go to the theater. Details on the Players' website.