MERRIMAC — Karina O'Donnell was an aspiring actress who had lit up the stage at Pentucket Regional High School and carried her passion for acting to venues like Newburyport's Firehouse Center for the Arts.

Friends and family are recalling the young life cut short by an auto accident in Salem, N.H., late Friday night that claimed the life of O'Donnell, 23, and her boyfriend Michael Joyce, 29, of Stoneham.

Police said Joyce was driving a 2006 Ford F-250 pickup truck when he drove through the beginning of the off-ramp to the rest area. The truck traveled off the ramp and into the woods, where it struck a large tree.

Tomorrow, a funeral Mass will be said at Church of the Nativity in Merrimac.

Instead of giving flowers, O'Donnell's family is asking mourners to donate money to a scholarship created in her name to recognize and appreciate high school seniors and fellow theater buffs who embodied O'Donnell's spirit, her friend Kimberly O'Keefe said.

Keefe noted that the final bow of actors on stage at the end of a performance is meant as an appreciation and recognition to the audience. But there's a lot more to it for the actors, especially for the high school students who are involved in theater during all four years. Their final bow in their senior year is one they always remember.

"We all remember that last bow and reflect back on four years that passed," O'Keefe said. "The bow to her symbolized how much she'd grown up, and I know at Pentucket (Regional High School), theater there is family, and Karina embodied that so much."

O'Donnell took part in every musical and play at Pentucket from "Guys and Dolls," in which she played Miss Adelaide, to "A Chorus Line."

"Guys and Dolls" was O'Donnell's last performance at Pentucket and the last time she took a bow with her fellow classmates.

O'Donnell, O'Keefe and her friends had been through a lot together. They shared their problems with each other.

"They are people that are there for you," O'Keefe said.

Theater meant so much to O'Donnell that shortly after graduating from high school, she got a tattoo of a star with the number 173 and the quote, "Just be the light."

The number is Pentucket's theater room number, and the quote was often recited by O'Donnell and O'Keefe's former theater teacher, Stephen Gundersheim, before the closing night of every performance.

"You're one person, but you can be a light for everyone," O'Keefe recalled.

Gundersheim, who is now a theater professor at a private South Carolina college, nurtured O'Donnell's love of theater. Gundersheim, as well as former classmates of O'Donnell from Pentucket and Northwestern, where she studied theater, will come to Merrimac for the funeral.

O'Donnell wasn't only about theater. She maintained a 3.8 GPA while working and rehearsing the plays and musicals she was involved with.

After leaving college, she returned to Merrimac and got a job at Medico Co., in its customer service department.

She excelled in that department and also met her boyfriend, Joyce.

O'Keefe said the couple had left a company outing when the crash occurred. They were minutes from arriving home.

"As you can imagine, we're devastated by the loss," said O'Donnell's boss at Medico, Robert Comeau. "She was a very special person to all of us."

While working at Medico, O'Donnell continued working in theater when spots became available.

In Newburyport's Firehouse Center for the Arts, O'Donnell was in two productions: "Seussical" and "Oliver!"

Anne Easter Smith, who was on the cast of "Oliver!" with O'Donnell commended her on the difficult role of Nancy.

"I was devastated to read about Karina's sad loss. The area stages will be terribly devastated," Smith said.

While friends and family will be devastated, they will gather in song one last time for O'Donnell.

At her funeral, the song "What I did for love" will be sung.

The song comes toward the end of the musical, which is about a group of dancers auditioning for a spot on a chorus line.

The song happens shortly after one of the final remaining dancers falls, injures his knee and is taken to a hospital. The remaining people auditioning on stage realize how quickly their careers could be over.

The song begins: "Kiss today goodbye, the sweetness and the sorrow. Wish me luck, the same to you. But I can't regret what I did for love."


Karina O'Donnell Theatre Scholarship Fund, c/o Merrimac Savings Bank, 1 West Main St., Merrimac, MA 01860.

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