Seventy-six-year-old Douglas Whaley has followed his lifelong interest out of the classroom and into the theater with an original play.
Whaley, an Ohio State law professor, will debut “The Turkey Men” Wednesday at Columbus Performing Arts Center.
He said his play was inspired by a 2011 story in the Columbus Dispatch called “Civil War prisoner, guard became lifelong friends,” by John Switzer. In his article, Switzer chronicles the true, 57-year friendship of two Civil War soldiers on opposite sides of the war who ran a turkey farm in Sterling, Ohio, after the surrender of the South.
Whaley said he imagined the relationship differently.
“I got to thinking what it would have been like in 1865 and the next 57 years to be a gay couple and running a turkey farm,” Whaley said.
“The Turkey Men” explores the possibility that these unlikely friends were actually a lifelong, gay couple while adding a supernatural twist.
Whaley said the play is set in 2016 and features the two historical figures as ghosts, working to help a 16-year-old lesbian who is being forced into conversion therapy. It takes place on the old turkey farm, where they lived together for 57 years until their deaths in 1922 and 1923.
A co-founder of Stonewall Columbus and member of the LGBTQ+ community, Whaley said conversion therapy “never works, and the cruelty of it — it’s just cruelty — it makes me furious.” He added that he tried to display the perspective from those in favor of the therapy as well as his own views within the play.
David Vargo, Whaley’s husband and director of the play, said Whaley described it to him as “a modern fairy tale except she has two fairy godmothers.”
Vargo said he has professional experience in theater, having both acted and directed extensively in Florida before moving to Ohio. Although Whaley said Vargo was reluctant at first, Vargo agreed to direct after being the first to hear the script.
“It had more than just the common elements of a good play,” Vargo said, commenting on the “dramatic action” and characters that he believes are necessary to a successful production.
Vargo said “The Turkey Men” has universal appeal.
“It’s heartwarming, it’s charming, it’s romantic, it’s funny,” he said.
Vargo said Whaley was hands-off during the production of the piece and didn’t even attend the casting, which Vargo said is 80 percent of a successful play. Instead, Vargo brought any questions he had about the script home to his husband.
Although Whaley said he has always been involved in theater, he saw a clearer path for his life in law. He began teaching law when he was 26 years old. While he is celebrating the debut of his first play, he is also celebrating his 50th anniversary as a teacher.
“As soon as I found the classroom, it was duck discovers water,” Whaley said.
Now retired, Whaley still teaches one or two law classes each semester at Ohio State.
Whaley said he began writing his piece in 2015 but set it down for almost a year after writing just three pages. Once he began again in September 2016, Whaley said he finished the play in five days.
“It is one of the greatest thrills of my life,” Whaley said. “It’s one thing to see it on paper, but it’s another thing to see it on stage.”
“The Turkey Men” will run Oct. 16-26 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center. Tickets can be purchased at evolutiontheatre.org or at the box office.