There she goes again
Duluth's reaction to 'runaway bride' story the subject of new play

It was April 30, 2005, when, after a week of heartfelt pleas from her friends and family, the violent captors who'd snatched Duluth resident Jennifer Wilbanks off the street during an evening jog had a change of heart and let her go.

It was also April 30, 2005, when, after a brief round of questioning, the would-be bride had a change of heart and admitted to the authorities that there were never any captors in the first place.

In a twist that shocked the nation, it turned out that Wilbanks' purported plight was merely the most epic case of cold feet since the god-awful Julia Roberts movie that spawned her well-earned nickname. In the words of Walter Sobchak from "The Big Lebowski," "She kidnapped herself, Dude."

Some sympathized. Others wanted the woman to face serious consequences for wasting everyone's time. Many just wished she would go away. But whatever reaction you felt, for awhile there you couldn't turn on a TV or open a newspaper without seeing that infamous bug-eyed mugshot.

Now, three years later, Wilbanks is back. Sort of.

Duluth's own Red Clay Theatre presents "Runaway Bride," a dramatized version of the story that unwillingly thrust a small suburban town into the national spotlight. The play opens Thursday at the Red Clay Theatre and Arts Center, 3116 Main St., Duluth.

"What we tried to do in this show is present a mixed balance of people's reactions," said the production's co-writer, Deborah Childs.

Childs said that back when it happened, she, "like everybody, was very happy to hear that (Wilbanks) was safe, because she really has a happy ending ... but I was quite surprised as to the whole made-up story of what had happened."

Producer Shelly Howard actually lived right across the street from the media circus that rapidly escalated, and staging a play based on what happened was her idea, Childs said.

The community chaos amid the faux-bridenapping is actually the show's main focus, she said. In fact, Wilbanks and jilted groom John Mason aren't even characters in their own story. Instead, the play spotlights the Gwinnettians who were forced to deal with the disappearance and its embarrassing aftermath.

"The people of Duluth, particularly, invested a lot of time and energy and heart into searching for her," Childs said, explaining that the cast of 20 performers portrays about 70 different characters.

The script hews closely to the true-life tale, she added.

"There are actual quotes in the show from people who commented at the time," Childs said. "All of the reactions are reactions that either I've read online, or that people have actually come up and told me."

The local actress and playwright said she thinks audience members might change their own minds about Wilbanks, for better or worse, by the time the curtain falls.

But why should Gwinnett residents come out to see a fictionalized version of a story they already witnessed firsthand?

"Curiosity, for one," Childs said, adding that community feedback for the upcoming play has been almost as mixed as it was for the real deal.

"There are some people who wish we would just forgive and forget, and never mention it again," she said, "and then there's others that are going, 'Ooo! I've gotta come see that!' ... Everybody has an opinion about it. I think that's great."