Roots: Stacey (Stephanie Herman, left) consults with Ms. Brooks (Betty Scott Smith) while trying to find her parents in a scene from 'If I Only Knew.'Courtesy of Carl Occhipinti

After years in the grueling theater biz, most 59 year olds would probably just retire. But one stage buff, with strong Oak Park ties, is making his first foray into film, just shy of his 60th birthday.

For six years, Carl Occhipinti was artistic director at Village Players, a 50-year-old theater company in Oak Park now known as Madison Street Theatre. Now, he’s set to debut his first feature film, If I Only Knew, right here in Oak Park.

Occhipinti long had an itch to do movies, but it rose to the top in 2002, when starring in a production of To Kill a Mockingbird at Village Players. The young actress playing his fictional daughter, Scout, was terrific, he said, but the audience had a hard time hearing her. That made him want to shift mediums to try film and better capture those intimate moments.

“The seed was planted a long time ago, it just took some time to water and fertilize it,” he said.

The 38-minute film, which the Rogers Park resident wrote and directed, tells the story of Stacey, an expectant mother who sets about trying to find her birth parents. Along the way, it examines “the mystery of connections” in life and Stacey’s “startling spiritual awakening,” according to a synopsis provided by the director. The material is personal to Occhipinti, as he’s estranged from his children after publicly admitting many years ago that he is gay.

If I Only Knew has Oak Park connections aplenty. The Oak Park Arms doubles as an adoption agency in one scene, and an Oak Park home is used as a location in another take.

Several Village Player alums fill roles in the movie, including Wednesday Journal columnist Jack Crowe, and Oak Parkers also worked various jobs behind the camera. Betty Scott Smith — a Chicagoan who once played the title role in Driving Miss Daisy — said it was like a mini Village Players reunion.

“It was great to be back with them. We had a good, good time together,” said Smith, who is 89. “They remembered their lines very well, but I had a few little blank spots.”

Molly Riley — an Oak Parker who formerly co-owned Molly Malone’s in Forest Park — lent her home for the film, and plays the main character’s mom. She said Occhipinti seemed to have no problem making the transition from theater to movies.

“He certainly showed up and was already a film director and not a stage director,” she said. “He knew right away what he needed to do.”

The film will premiere privately on March 8 in Oak Park before three public screenings in the village, the first of which is at 8 p.m. March 9 at the 300-seat Unity Church, 405 N. Euclid Ave.

After it rolls out to the public, Occhipinti hopes to submit If I Only Knew to Spiritual Cinema Circle, a DVD club that mails spiritually themed movies to subscribers.

“I think it’ll give people a lot to think about and talk about,” he said. “It’ll challenge some people’s beliefs.”

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