Photo by Liz Lauren
Jen Silverman’s “Highway Patrol” is many things at once. The play is compiled from actual tweets between the actress Dana Delany (who plays herself in this production) and a fan who befriended her online while Delany—who played a nurse in TV’s “China Beach” and a doctor in “Body of Proof”—grew to care more and more about this dying 13-year-old boy. The show is both literal and expressionistic: we see Delany, for the most part, in realistic locations both at home and at work, but the boy, Cam, only speaks to her from within a sharply defined spotlight. As it unfolds before us, part in “real time” and part with Delany looking back and remembering, we also grow more and more aware of the ways in which this risky, experimental script exposes her vulnerability and, even as we are amazed (like her) at the way this young fan thinks and writes to her, her reactions to him show a side of the TV star we rarely see. And I, at least, was seriously impressed by her willingness to share so openly.
Part of both the relationship with Cam and her openness here is the fact that Delany comes across, both on TV and on stage, as a truly likable person. She mentions many times that she has had no real relationships in her life due to her busy schedule as an actress—and goodness: the “days” we see her working are long and exhausting—but she seems approachable and friendly and…just someone who would be nice to know. Cam tells her that watching “China Beach” was very important to him and that he is “in love” with her and wants to be her friend…and maybe, if he only had time to grow up, more. She and the audience understand it as puppy love, and even though he occasionally asks questions—for which he immediately apologizes—that awkwardly cross a line into too-personal territory, she plays along.
Cam is played by Thomas Murphy Molony, a young boy who can match Delany at any time in the sincerity department. He is easily as open as she is, and though we realize at all times that his second transplanted heart is failing and this child is dying, he is never morose. Intense, yes—he never seems to sleep—but not morose. When he reveals an odd ability to talk to the dead, he is apologetic about it, asking Delany if she thinks he is nuts now. The thing is, though, that his revelation of the things he has talked with them about gives Delany pause: Cam’s probing questions seem to reveal a knowledge of events and people in her own life, and when he meets her long-dead father she is overwhelmed. Suddenly this has changed from a Make-a-Wish Foundation thing to something more akin to The Sixth Sense. She even contacts actor and friend Peter Gallagher about it. (Gallagher plays himself as well, but in voice recordings only.) Gallagher was the one who introduced Cam into her life; what does he think of all of this? He, though, has gotten most of his information from Cam’s guardian, Nan, and his brother, Caton, neither of whom knows anything about this odd ability. All he can affirm is that Cam seems to be the very nice kid that Delany thinks he is.
Nan and Caton are portrayed by the third onstage member of the cast, Dot-Marie Jones, who played Coach Beiste on “Glee.” By occasionally hijacking Cam’s iPad, they are able to chat with Delany and give her more candid information on the sick boy than he has apparently been willing to give. Jones ends up playing four roles and becomes a compelling part of this play, especially in Act Two, after a surprising moment at the end of Act One that (though it makes total sense in retrospect) did shock and even confuse many in the audience.
Mike Donahue’s strong directorial hand—he is one of the four creators of the play along with Silverman, Delany, and Dane Laffrey—moves the play along and allows us to make sense of its twists and turns. Played on a set designed by Laffrey (and beautifully lit by Jen Schriever) that makes generous use of carts for locations and uses projections to give at least the illusion of significant depth as we find ourselves often in various parts of Delany’s California home. (The contrast between this and the cramped quarters in which we see Nan is clear.) Enver Chakartash’s costumes are perfect, and Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound design is as well, with certain effects designed to overwhelm. More Yee Eun Nam projections give us a clear picture of how much real-world time is passing during the development of the plot…and remind us that this is all true.
Highway Patrol, the enigmatic title of which becomes clear in Act Two, is ultimately about the basic human need for connection. It’s the second show I’ve seen in two nights with this theme, the other being Shattered Globe’s production of the absurdist drama Flood. We all—even the famous actors among us—need someone to connect to. Cam provides that for an overworked and exhausted Delany, and she gives it back. The play’s twists might change how you react to that, but they can’t alter the basic truth of it.
Highway Patrol runs through February 18 at The Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N Dearborn Street, Chicago. You can get tickets here. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.