Stories have a way of taking over from the writers who are creating them.
When he started working on his play “That Wasn’t Me,” Llywelyn Jones said he intended to tell a story about the effects of drunken driving “and how horrible it is for the victims and families and how during the trial nobody’s a winner. The victim’s gone, the driver’s family is distraught.”
But the story he ended up writing focused on the relationship between a strong-willed mother and her teenage son who is charged in a fatal drunken driving accident. Billy’s promising future is suddenly cut short and his mother, Claire, has to learn to begin cutting the apron strings.
“It became about a mother and son and how at some point in your life they can’t protect you anymore,” Jones said. “She’s been able to control and micromanage his life and she realizes she can no longer do that.”
The play won the 2013 New Play Festival at the Players Theatre, which will present a fuller production that opens Thursday. Eve Caballero stars as the mother and Gianni Damaia is Billy.
Helen Holliday is directing the production, which also features Ellie McCaw, Michael Morris, John Forsyth, Brett McDowall, Adam Garrison and Jordan Dixon.
“That Wasn’t Me” marked the second Players’ festival that Jones has won. He won in 2005 for his play “Blackout,” which was later produced at the Players Theatre and in St. Petersburg.
It also led to him receiving an individual-artist grant from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.
“That was a huge boost,” he said. “It was a sign from the universe that I’m going in the right direction.”
His play “Confession of a Stalker” was given a showcase off Broadway in 2008, and “Anatomically Speaking” was featured in this summer’s Players festival. One other play, “It’s Only Money,” will be presented in a backer’s audition in December for investors in a possible off-Broadway production next spring, he said.
After last year’s reading series, artistic director Jeffery Kin said “it’s rare that we have a play that is not only entertaining but has a strong message.”
Jones said the feedback he got after the 2013 reading helped guide him through a series of rewrites and refocusing of the play, which led to several private readings before the new production that opens this week.
He said the story was triggered, in part, by the 2012 death of a jogger on Siesta Key who was hit by a speeding drunken driver fleeing the scene of another crash, where he’d struck another vehicle.
“It was so heart-wrenching,” Jones said of the death of that jogger, Donna Chen.
Rather than focusing on the victim of a drunken driving accident, Jones said he wanted to look at the other side.
“I’ve seen lots of stories and movies of the week about the victims of drunken driving, but you don’t see it from the other perspective,” he said.
He admits it is “not a popular thing to talk about. People think if you are a drunken driver, you’re a monster, throw the book at them. But they’re still a human being. Everybody makes mistakes. I wanted to show the human side of drunken driving and how it affects everybody.”
Jones includes other dramatic and personal elements in the story. Claire, the mother, is a court reporter who knows something about the legal system. She also has recently started dating a lawyer, who agrees to handle Billy’s case. But it has a profound impact on their still-developing relationship.
Jones said the new production is a positive reflection of the new play development process, which started from the “incredible notes” he got after the first reading last summer that led to his winning the festival.
He took notes on all the comments and put them away for a few months. “Then I had to pick about 10 of the most salient comments and rewrote the play.” A reading was held in December, leading to more changes and another reading.
“The script now is a result of the process of reading, hearing it out loud, getting great feedback and then reworking it,” he said.
The 46-year-old Jones, who graduated from Riverview High School, spends about half of his year writing plays and screenplays, some of which are being shopped around in Hollywood. The rest of the time he works backstage during the Sarasota Opera season.
“It’s a good balance. If I have too much time to just write, it kind of gets to you. This is a good way to split up the year,” he said.
“That Wasn’t Me” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28-30 and 2 p.m. Aug. 31 at the Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are $15. For more information: 365-2494; theplayers.org