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Bringing a Local Story to Life: Reflections on Staging “Return Engagement” by Kathleen Kenney Peterson

The recent production of Winona-based playwright Kathleen Kenney Peterson’s “Return Engagement” at Theatre du Mississippi was an incredibly rewarding and collaborative experience for all involved. Return Engagement tells a deeply personal story about an older gay actor’s struggle with Multiple Sclerosis and his need to move back to his small hometown to receive help from his estranged family. After eight years in development, seeing the play come to life on stage exceeded Peterson’s expectations.

Michael Fitzpatrick of the Great River Shakespeare Festival anchored the cast and lent his generous spirit. His involvement drew enthusiastic crowds, but also established cross-generational bonds that continue today. 

The process was not without challenges. The team navigated COVID protocols during rehearsals and worked hard to fine-tune the script. The result was a testament to what can be created by a dedicated cast and crew working together. Experiencing a solo writing project being transformed into a vibrant, fully embodied performance was a humbling and energizing experience for Peterson. 

Beyond achieving her artistic goals, the most moving part of the project for Peterson was realizing how the play’s themes resonated universally. Chronic illness, caregiving, aging, and reconciliation are issues many people face. “After every single performance, we had audience members walk out in tears…so many folks shared stories of their own struggles with exactly the kind of issues and situations in the play,” Peterson remarked. “We also had some amazing comments in surveys about being gay in a small town, losing spouses to chronic illness, and the huge challenges with caregiving.” It was a powerful affirmation for Peterson of why she writes – to reflect shared struggles.

This experience has fueled Peterson’s creative momentum. Energized by the cast’s feedback, she is expanding one of her previously published novels into a new play. Return Engagement also increased her visibility as a regional playwright. But most rewarding for her was crafting art that moved the community and donating some of the ticket revenue to Elder Network in Winona. “When art opens eyes, hearts, and conversations – that is everything.” 

Congratulations to Kathleen Kenney Peterson on her wonderful, impactful achievement. We look forward to seeing more from her in the future!

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