Elizabeth Orndorff doesn’t own a cell phone.
That alone made her feel unqualified to tackle a high-tech mystery plot, which is all the rage these days on shows like CSI and Numb3rs.
But she wanted to enter a script into the first International Mystery Writers’ Festival last year at Owensboro’s RiverPark Center. Who’d want to pass up a shot at a $10,000 prize?
So, she went decidedly low tech, and stayed close to home.
“I wanted to set it in Kentucky, because the theater and the festival were in Kentucky,” Orndorff said. “So, I checked into places and stories around here.”
The mystery that intrigued her was a widely held rumor that Charles Dickens once visited Mammoth Cave. But there was no record of it. If the great author did visit, he never wrote about it.
She had the framework for a mystery.
“Charles Dickens had this soap-opera life,” Orndorff said. “He hated America, and he hated slavery.”
The Danville writer’s attempt to answer the question of what might have happened to Dickens in the cave became Death by Darkness, a mystery set in Mammoth Cave’s famous Star Chamber, where, if you turn off your lights, the glow of gypsum deposits dot the ceiling.
It was a hit, winning the top prize at the festival, where the competition included mystery legends such as Ed McBain and William Link.
“I kinda backed into it, which is why I think people liked it,” Orndorff says. “It was more about how these personalities rubbed up against each other in that cave. But there is a dead body. It’s a mystery, so you have to have a dead body.”
A summer later, Central Kentucky audiences are getting to see the play at the Pioneer Playhouse, where Death by Darkness runs through Saturday. In addition to bringing Orndorff’s award-winning script to Danville, the Playhouse brought in John Nyrere Frazier, who won the award for best actor at the Mystery Festival for playing Darkness’s lead character, Stephen Bishop, a slave who has developed a deep connection with the cave.
The new production takes Orndorff back to the summer of 2007 and her trip to Owensboro to see the world premiere of her show.
“That was fun,” she recalls. “We got to Owensboro, and there were baskets of flowers in our hotel room, wishing us well.”
Before she got to the festival, Orndorff was getting hints that things might go well from the daughter of a friend who was working on the festival. She kept calling saying she’d seen other plays there, “but they aren’t as good as Death by Darkness,” Orndorff said.
Obviously, the festival judges agreed.
Since then, Orndorff has been at work getting the show out there, entering it in contests and sending it to other theaters.
“Having that kind of validation is motivating,” Orndorff says. “You think, ‘I’ve done this once, I can do it again.’”
She’s had other validation, such as her one-act play The Bathroom Cleaner, being performed at the Wonderland One-Act Play Festival in New York City and productions of several of her scripts at Danville’s West T. Hill Community Theatre, including The Spring Cleaning, slated for next April.
She acknowledges she wants to get back to writing, to use the momentum from Death by Darkness to create another attention-grabbing script. And she just might draw some inspiration from the current production.
“It’s wonderful to have it so close to home,” she says. “I’ll be out there several times.”
Copyrighted photo of Elizabeth Orndorff, above, by Mary Robin Spoonamore.