Dana Delaney’s ‘Highway Patrol’ a revelatory experience for well-known actor

Playwright, text curator and creator Jen Silverman (from left), creator Dane Laffrey, actress and creator Dana Delany and creator and director Mike Donahue at the the Goodman Theatre, where their new work, “Highway Patrol” is having its world premiere.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Dana Delany was starring as medical examiner Megan Hunt in the television crime drama “Body of Proof” when ABC asked her in 2012 to join Twitter to help promote the show. 

Delany says she had no previous interest in becoming part of the Twitter universe, something she saw as “so new and strange.” But she joined to appease the network and, to her surprise, loved it.

“I started to really get into it,” Delany says. “It felt so utopian back then, a great democratic experiment where you could carve out your little niche of people you wanted to communicate with. It was really fun for a while. And then, like all utopian experiments, it started to go dark.”

HIghway Patrol

‘Highway Patrol’

When: Through Feb. 18

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Tickets: $25-$90

Info: goodmantheatre.org

The revelatory story of her time on Twitter and one complex relationship formed on the site during that time provide the premise of “Highway Patrol,” a new play currently in previews that opens Tuesday at the Goodman Theatre. Created over the past four years by Delany, playwright Jen Silverman, director Mike Donahue and set designer Dane Laffrey, it stars Delany, Dot-Marie Jones and Thomas Murphy Molony.

As she became acclimated to Twitter and began to enjoy connecting with others, Delany got a tweet from a seriously ill 13-year-old fan that evolved into a round-the-clock, months-long friendship that also included his mother, brother and grandparents.

“He had a heart problem, and people on Twitter began attacking him because he tweeted a lot,” Delany says. “I told him to start tweeting me privately because I wanted to protect him, and that’s how it began.”

Delany saved all of the tweets, DMs and emails and was toying with the idea of creating a one-woman show about the experience, when, in 2018, she met her three collaborators — all making their Goodman debuts with “Highway Patrol” — while appearing in Silverman’s “Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties” at New York’s MCC Theater. 

Dana Delany (standing) with Dot-Marie Jones (on screen) as “Nan/Others” and Thomas Murphy Molony as “Cam” in “Highway Patrol.”

Liz Lauren

One evening after Delany told them the story of her intense experience and its unexpected revelations, the idea of a more complex play began to form.

“Everything about Dana’s story intrigued me,” Silverman says. “It’s full of a narrative richness about this desire to find real intimacy and connection with another human, which is something I think all of us are trying to do.” 

The material, which the creators refer to as “the archive,” is about 600 pages long. Whittling it down and shaping it into a 100-minute play proved a monumental challenge.

The first step in the collaboration was reading through all of that material, which the team did with a few actor friends at New York’s New Dramatists playwrights center. 

“There were all these ways in which the psychology and the emotional life of these two people in the transcript actually became so visceral and so clear, and that was pretty exciting,” Donahue says.

“I know a lot of actors my age who won’t do theater anymore because it demands a lot more out of you physically,” Dana Delaney says. “But I like it because it scares me, and I still like to be scared. I think you have to shake things up a bit now and then.”

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

“It was riveting,” says Silverman, who then began to cut and curate the archive into a play.

Interviews with Delany helped fill in connecting material. 

“The interviews opened up a window into what was going on with Dana in her life at the time,” Donahue says. “Part of the challenge was how to shape and structure this so that it feels absolutely truthful, so that we have a clear understanding of why Dana is doing what she is doing.”

Laffrey hopes that audiences find “Highway Patrol” to be innovative and unique.

“I think the piece asks very important questions about the nature of intimacy in the 21st century and what it means to actually connect with someone when all of the boundaries of geography and time are kind of collapsed,” Laffrey says.

Delany, 67, won two Emmy Awards for her breakout role as Army nurse Colleen McMurphy in the critically acclaimed Vietnam War drama “China Beach,” which aired from 1988 to 1991 and which she remembers as “such a special show with such good writing.” She’s now co-starring with Sylvester Stallone in “Tulsa King” on Paramount+.

While Delany has carved out a successful career in film and television, new creative possibilities keeps bringing her back to live theater.

“I know a lot of actors my age who won’t do theater anymore because it demands a lot more out of you physically,” she says. “But I like it because it scares me, and I still like to be scared. I think you have to shake things up a bit now and then.”

That scare factor is present with “Highway Patrol” as Delany admits she did and still does have apprehensions about putting the story on stage.

“Contrary to what you see in the play, I’m a very private person,” she says. “And I don’t really like talking about myself that much. So this is a big experiment for me.”

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