Brendan O’Connell’s grief has come full circle since those dark days following a drunk-driving crash that killed three of his friends.
The 22-year-old Derwood man has gone from being quiet and withdrawn to sharing his emotions openly through a play he has written and is producing as part of the ninth annual Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C.
“À Demain‘” focuses on his relationship with his best friend, Johnny Hoover, and the impact of the culture of drinking and driving on survivors.
Hoover, 20, Haeley McGuire, 18, and Spencer Datt, 18, were killed May 15, 2011, while riding in a car driven by 20-year-old Kevin Coffay. The car slammed into a tree along Olney-Laytonsville Road, killing McGuire, Datt and Hoover, all graduates of Col. Zadok A. Magruder High School in Rockville. Coffay is serving an eight-year prison sentence.
Hoover had been O’Connell’s best friend for 15 years. They rode the school bus together, and played soccer and basketball together.
Datt was O’Connell’s next-door neighbor. They grew up playing basketball, football and soccer in their backyards.
McGuire was the same age as O’Connell’s younger sister, so they, too, had crossed paths many times before.
“They all shared such a joy in life, and lived every day to the fullest,” O’Connell said. “They thought of their friends before themselves, and were an inspiration on the field, on the court, or in the classroom. They may not have been perfect, but they were all bright, young individuals.”
On the night of the crash, O’Connell had been with Hoover in College Park. Hoover decided he wanted to go back to Montgomery County, but at the last minute, O’Connell decided to stay in College Park.
“It still haunts me that I didn’t go with him,” he said. “He wanted me to go with him, and I never saw him again.”
The events of that night hit him hard. O’Connell said he had a hard time talking about it and dealing with it.
When he returned to the University of Maryland for the fall semester, he didn’t discuss it with his college friends.
“I was bottling things up, and it became very unhealthy,” he said. “A lot of us felt trapped in our own grief. We felt we had perpetuated the culture of drinking and driving.
“It did not have to be Johnny, Spencer and Haeley,” he said. “It could have been a lot of people. We didn’t understand why they were gone, and we were still here.”
He recalled that he himself had driven drunk, with Hoover in the car.
“This wasn’t just going on in our community — it is all over,” said O’Connell. “You make it home safe 99 times out of 100, but it only takes once.”
Despite delivering the eulogy at Hoover’s funeral, he said it was too easy to make sweeping promises.
He found himself abusing alcohol to deal with the intense pain.
“I came to realize that not only had I survived the night he died, but I kept surviving every night thereafter,” O’Connell said. “I felt that Johnny was still riding shotgun next to me, and that he continued to steer me to keep driving towards the light.”
The light came with time, when O’Connell said he finally arrived at a place of acceptance and forgiveness.
“I needed to move forward, although those people will still be forever with us in our hearts,” he said. “I knew I needed to make the most of my time on Earth, and make people smile.”
As a theater major, he had done some stand-up comedy and light work. Through his grieving process, he began to write the play.
“It is inspired by my grief and my conversations with Johnny about life and death,” O’Connell said.
The play, he said, is a “dramedy,” both dramatic and funny.
“I am the protagonist and he serves as a sort of guardian angel figure, showing me the way out of the darkness,” O’Connell said. “I still talk to him every day and we’ve grown together these last few years. I know there’s still a connection there and there always will be.”
The title, “À Demain,” is French for “see you tomorrow.”
O’Connell stars in the play along with his older brother Ryan, who portrays Hoover. Other cast members include Magruder graduates Max Schneiderman, Matt Dyer and Kate Edwards.
O’Connell said his goal was to focus on how his friends lived and appreciated life.
“We’ve all walked that line — I wanted this to be a tribute to life, not death,” he said.
He said he is grateful of the support he has received from family, friends and professors while working on this project.
Carrie Hoover, Johnny’s mother, said she feels touched that her son meant so much to O’Connell that he was inspired to write the play. She plans to see it.
“I am glad Brendan did it, and hopefully he has gotten a lot out of it,” she said. “It’s going to be hard for us, but Brendan has our full support. We know that it is coming from his heart.”
Michael Dobbs, an Olney parent, knew Hoover, Spencer and McGuire well. He said that after reading the synopsis, he is looking forward to seeing the play.
“I am sure that it is going to bring back a lot of memories, both good and bad,” Dobbs said. “It is incredibly difficult to write abut a personal tragedy and to put it out there publicly. I admire Brendan, and am proud of him.”
Dobbs said he expects the play to accomplish several things.
“It honors a fallen friend, it celebrates life, and it also reminds us how he died and the preventability of it all,” he said. “It is another way to learn the lessons that we, as parents, are all trying to impart.”
O’Connell said he is unsure of what is next. After devoting three years to writing the play, he is eager to get feedback, but in other ways, he is ready to move forward.
“I am ready to turn my focus elsewhere and pursue other theatre opportunities, but I wouldn’t shy away from any opportunity to take this play further, because I think it has an important message.”