Regional Reviews: Chicago
In brief, the main events of the story unfold over a few months in late 2012 and early 2013 when Delany is encouraged by Peter Gallagher (who contributes his voice to a handful of phone conversations) to reach out to and reassure a young mutual fan, Cam, that she is not angry with him for tangling with some of her other fans on Twitter. Gallagher's ask is motivated by the fact that Cam is seriously ill, having already weathered two heart transplants in his young life. Delany obliges and is eventually drawn into a rapidly intensifying virtual relationship with not only Cam but his family members.
In many ways, from the vantage point of 2024 (and, of course, with the awareness that one is sitting in a theater watching something that has generated enough drama to warrant a play being written about it), it's impossible not to see from the outset that things are headed in troubling directions. Yet the construction of the story and the performances are compelling enough that they buy quite a bit of suspension of disbelief.
The play isn't without its flaws. The third section of the show ("Dana") gives in to what the play itself admits is the ultimately unknowable factors that set the plot in motion, as though they were established fact. And the last ten minutes or so rather suddenly introduce the idea that Delany's falling into the relationship so entirely is just the latest in a series of attempts to fill a personal void. Neither notion is problematic or out of place in and of itself, they simply don't seem fully worked out in what is overall a lean, well-paced show.
The staging contributes greatly to why the show works so well. As the audience is filtering in, Delany is already on stage, killing time in a swivel chair in her trailer, which is set stage left. The set piece is on casters, but the backdrop conveying that the space is somewhere between cozy and claustrophobic is a highly realistic projection (design by Yee Eun Nam). A shifting series of tweets are projected above and to stage left of the trailer. Some are from Delany, promoting "Body of Proof" (the ABC show she was starring in at the time the story took place), others are from fans.
The show uses the projected backgrounds and a handful of sets that glide in from the wings: Delany's kitchen, her bed, and later, a hospital room, an apartment, and a communications room at a police station. Occasionally, the screen comprising the upstage wall provides dates or the occasional transcribed text from the messages that fly freely back and forth, but overall the set design, projections, and subtle and effective lighting by Jen Schriever draw the audience into the days and nights that bleed into one another for both Dana, who is tied to the set for endless stretches, and Cam, who seems to set the rhythms of his life by hers.
Delany is certainly not the first actor to take on the role of themself, but it seems a peculiar challenge to authentically re-create oneself in real-time under the circumstances the story demands. With a remarkable knack, she generates a slightly-too-chipper version of herself that believably reads as how a public person would navigate this kind of interaction with a far-away child. The temptation to give the audience a wink or a subtle self eye-roll seems like it would be overwhelming, but she rightly resists, and yet every so often, we notice her noticing something that seems a little strange or not quite right, then tamping down the suspicion.
Thomas Murphy Molony, who plays Cam, does a tremendous job. It would be all too easy for an actor to slip into something too saccharine or too wise-beyond-his-years to be true–and in fact, the character's dialogue deliberately trends in that direction at a number of points–but Molony's performance is sure and steady, and he does great work subtly dialing Cam's age up or down to give the character an appropriate not-quite-true-to-life feel.
Dot-Marie Jones (Nan/Others) is also outstanding. Without ever telegraphing what is to come, Jones conveys that something may not quite be right with Nan and perhaps the rest of Cam's family. As events unfold, Jones fearlessly takes her characters to some fairly dark places and yet maintains their humanity. Without her nuanced performance and the depth she brings to the characters, nothing about Dana's ambivalence at the end of the play would ring remotely true.
Highway Patrol runs through February 18, 2024, at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit GoodmanTheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.