Intriguing tale, fearlessly told: Goodman’s ‘Highway Patrol’ examines online friendship of Dana Delany and a young fan

I spent the first act of Goodman Theatre’s “Highway Patrol” waiting for a shoe to drop. I spent the second act waiting for the other one to follow.

Marked by a fearless performance from actor/co-creator Dana Delany (“China Beach,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Tulsa King”), this intriguing, uniquely constructed work is a collaboration between the Emmy Award-winner, playwright/curator Jen Silverman, director Mike Donahue and set designer Dane Laffrey. Part suspense drama, part cautionary tale, “Highway Patrol” is based on Delany’s real-life experience with a fan she met through social media.

Had it premiered 12 years ago — when the story takes place, at a time when Twitter’s popularity was surging — the play might have resonated more profoundly. Back then, users were unaware of the hazards posed by platforms like Twitter (now known as X). Not everyone recognized the importance of maintaining privacy. Not everyone realized social media users may not be who they appear to be.

We know better now. With that in mind, I thought I knew where “Highway Patrol” was going. I was only partly correct.

The action commences in September 2012 after Delany, who plays herself, joins Twitter at producers’ suggestion to promote her ABC series “Body of Proof.”

She establishes a relationship with a disarming fan named Cam (Thomas Murphy Molony, a young actor skilled beyond his years) who says he’s 13 but looks like an 11-year-old in his photograph. Cam tells her he’s a terminally ill heart patient living in Costa Rica with his grandfather, his ex-Marine older brother Caton and his grandmother Nan (the excellent Dot-Marie Jones from Fox’s “Glee” in a wrenching, shrewdly enigmatic performance).

Dot-Marie Jones, seen on the video screen, Dana Delany, standing below her, and Thomas Murphy Molony, right, star in Goodman Theatre's premiere of “Highway Patrol,” which is based on Delany's social media friendship with a young fan. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Through Twitter, emails and direct messages, they establish a deep, emotional bond, which is unsettling, to say the least. Revealing more would spoil what is, at its core, a profoundly personal examination of loneliness.

To that end, it takes courage to share with a theater full of strangers intimate, vulnerable moments from one’s life. Kudos to Delany for doing so with striking candor.

The acting is exceptional. Donahue’s direction is confidant with a nice sense of theatricality, evidenced in part by the artfully staged reveal that concludes the first act. And set designer Laffrey’s realistic-looking digital images make an ideal backdrop for a tale animated by illusion.

Dana Delany, left, befriends ailing 13-year-old fan Cam (Thomas Murphy Molony) in “Highway Patrol,” a new play based on Delany's real-life experiences. It runs through Feb. 18 at Goodman Theatre. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

That said, there’s room for improvement. While “Highway Patrol” chronicles events and Dana’s response to them, the play fails to provide a satisfying explanation for her loneliness. References to a grueling filming schedule and the exhaustion associated with it provide little context. And allusions to the loss of her father and a troubled relationship with her mother come so late they feel like afterthoughts. When it comes to Cam’s motivation, we know even less. Lastly, the sentiment that concludes the play rings hollow.

Still, “Highway Patrol” has promise. Bold, daring and original, it’s a show worth seeing.

• • •

“Highway Patrol”

3 stars

Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday through Feb. 18. Also, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13. No 7 p.m. show Feb. 11 or 18

Tickets: $25-$90

Running time: 2 hours including intermission

Parking: Nearby garages, discounted parking with Goodman Theatre validation at the Government Center Self Park at Clark and Lake streets

Rating: For teens and older, play includes mature language and subject matter, including of a sexual nature

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