J.E. Ballantyne Jr. always is on the lookout for a good story. If it happens to be about World War II, so much the better.
His produced plays include the Holocaust stories ''The Secret Annexe,'' ''Block 5'' and ''A Light in the Darkness.''
The inspiration for the his latest production comes from closer to home.
''Dog Days,'' which opens Friday at the Victorian Players Theater, is based on the true story of Albert Wickline, a Salem native who was a tail gunner in a B-17 fighter jet during World War II. Ballantyne was working with Wickline's granddaughter, Sarah, on a production of ''The Miracle Worker'' when she told him how her grandfather's plane was shot down over France on its return trip from a bombing raid in Germany on Oct. 14, 1943. Wickline was taken in by a French family who hid him in their farmhouse for 13 months.
''By the time she was finished, I was fascinated,'' Ballantyne said. ''I went home and thought, this would make a great stage show.''
After a staged reading last year, Ballantyne decided to mount a full production of the play.
WHAT: ''Dog Days''
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 5.
WHERE: Victorian Players Theater, 702 Mahoning Ave., Youngstown
HOW MUCH: $10 adults, $8 students and senior citizens and $5 for active duty military and veterans with a military ID. For reservations or more information, call 330-746-5455.
One of the best resources Ballantyne had to work with was a video where Albert Wickline spent more than an hour telling the story of his year-plus in hiding.
''This was all Nazi-occupied territory, and they knew he was there,'' Ballantyne said. ''They searched the farmhouse five times, but they never could find him.''
An integral part of the story was the French family's dog. Wickline was warned to stay away from the animal and was told he was ''the meanest dog on the continent.'' By the end of his time there, the dog became his friend and protector, alerting him whenever the Nazis arrived on the scene.
But that meant finding an animal who could work on stage.
''There was never any question, never any hesitation (about using a real dog),'' he said. ''It's only a brief appearance, but hearing the dog and never seeing it wouldn't quite work.''
The dog is played by Maximus, a German shepherd search-and-rescue dog owned by Boardman police officer Jack Neapolitan.
''He's a very trainable and very smart animal,'' Ballantyne said. ''And I'm an old German shepherd owner, so I love it.''
The human cast features Davin Stilson as Albert along with Bill Shorr, Audrey Allen, Brian Root, Camille Smith, Glenn Stevens, Ryan Newell, Gary Deckant, Ed O'Malley, Gerri Jenkins, Chuck Creiger, Christopher Chaibi, Josh Fleming, Vinnie Dragos and Josh Lankford.