Director John Shillington knew very little about Sebastopol native Willard Libby before choosing to write a play inspired by events from his life.
“Half-Life: A Love Story,” which will have its world premiere at Main Stage West, is about the life and loves of Libby, a 1926 Analy High School graduate and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
The musical will run from Friday, June 14, to Sunday, June 30, with Thursday to Saturday shows at 8 p.m. and Sunday shows at 5 p.m.
A highway and park in Sebastopol are named after Libby, who was known for his work on the Manhattan Project, radiocarbon dating and the Atomic Energy Commission.
According to Shillington, Libby was a self-described Cold War warrior and an early pioneer of climate research, who in the play is at the crux of a love triangle.
The other two are Libby’s wife, Lenore, and Leona Woods Marshall, who worked on engineering the first nuclear reactor. The play is based on interviews with Libby and Marshall from in the 1970s and ’80s.
Libby and Marshall met while working on the Manhattan Project. Libby married his wife, Lenore, in 1940. He kept his work on the atomic project a secret from her.
“It’s been a fascinating project for us all in exploring his political and personal challenges,” Shillington said.
Shillington started writing “Half-Life” four years ago with Janis Wilson, who provides the musical composition. Bob Duxbury also helped write it, and they did a workshop of the production last summer to prepare for its opening this season.
Originally the play was going to focus on two people, Libby and Luther Burbank, with “Crossroads” as the title. Libby and Burbank lived in Sebastopol at the same time for more than a decade, where Burbank drove a buggy heading west to his farm on Bodega Avenue and Libby drove a car north to school.
“They literally made a cross path somewhere around Highway 116 and 12, where the theater happens to be. That was my original idea,” Shillington said.
Shillington thought it would be fun to juxtapose the lives of Libby and Burbank, but the problem was that he and co-writers didn’t have any evidence of them ever meeting. The writers decided not to focus on both, and Shillington may do a play about Burbank next year.
Before the writers brought on Duxbury, a playwright, Shillington had a hard time balancing Libby’s political views.
“Even though he has that really strong stance, I see quite a bit of heroic choices that he made along the line, so that has been exciting for me,” Shillington said.
“Half-Life” stars Gene Wright as Bill Libby and Eileen Morris as Lenore Libby. In developing the character of Lenore, the writers had to use more artistic license, because there isn’t a lot known about her.
“Other than Willard Libby’s impression of her, we don’t have anything firsthand, other than her marriage and struggle in life,” Shillington said.
With the character of Marshall, Shillington and the writers were able to base her character on interviews she’d done and her books. The writers also had this advantage with Libby. Shillington said they were both prolific writers.
While Shillington has written other musicals based on plays from William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov, this is the first time he’s made something set in Sebastopol. Shillington said it’s been a joy to write with Wilson, the composer.
“I love Sebastopol, and I’m planning to live here for the rest of my life. I found my piece of paradise, and I’m not leaving,” Shillington said.
One of the songs references Sebastopol, and there is a character who plays five different roles. Shillington said Betty Crocker makes an appearance in the show, which adds some lightheartedness to the story.
“Hopefully it will encourage the audience to look at themselves, relationships and have a very enjoyable time. The music is phenomenal,” Shillington said.
The final show on Sunday, June 30, will be followed by an announcement of next year’s season of productions.
Main Stage West is located on 104 N. Main St. in Sebastopol. Tickets for “Half-Life: A Love Story” are $15 for students, $25 for seniors and $30 for general. For more information, visit mainstagewest.com or call 707-823-0177.