In Real Time: MILES FOR MARY, The Mad Ones in Collaboration with Amy Staats and Stacey Yen

Photo courtesy of Sue Kessler / The Bushwick Starr

Photo courtesy of Sue Kessler / The Bushwick Starr

“That’s great! It starts with an earthquake,
Birds and snakes, an aeroplane.
Lenny Bruce is not afraid.
Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn.
World serves its own needs, dummy, serve your own needs.”

“Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, Television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe”

Recognize these lyrics? If so, you’d likely laugh throughout The Mad Ones pitch perfect, on-the-cusp of the 1990s period-piece set in a high school Phys Ed teachers’ lounge. Neither song is actually in the show, but for some reason I couldn’t get the rapid fire litany of names and news headlines from REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know it” (1987) and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (1989) out of my head after seeing “Miles for Mary.”

Turns out, the events of the play— a series of telethon planning committee meetings at an Ohio High School— transpire during the exact school year between the release of these quintessential pop songs. My generational subconscious was deeply, specifically tapped by the pixilated documentary precision with which they conjured not some generalized 80s feeling, but 1988.

The interrupting blare of the school intercom, the out-of-tune din of band practice, and the photorealist set (Amy Rubin) reminded me of floppy diskettes and peeling the perforated edges off of desk jet printed banners. There’s a TV on a metal rolling cart, a chunky IBM desktop, an exercise bike, signs with the committee’s motto to “Do More” and inspirational posters with messages like “Be positive, don’t panic.” The costumes (Asta Hostetter): acid washed high-waist jeans, pastel track suits, and acrylic-print blouses are equally, satisfyingly super-real.

Minutes of the group’s overly self-conscious meetings attended by Sandra a.k.a. Coach B. (Stephanie Wright Thompson), acting chair David (Michael Dalto), wrestling coach Rod (Joe Curnutte), and married couple AV guy Ken (Marc Bovino) and AP English teacher Julie (Stacey Yen) with Brenda (Amy Staats) on speaker phone– the 6th committee member so committed to the cause that she calls-in to meetings even though she’s out of work– are saturated with passive-aggressive corporate-speak: “I can take your feedback” “Let’s take a 2” “I’m sorry I got into game mode when it wasn’t game time.” The group strays off task for “real-time” check-ins when things get heated or members disagree. It’s funny, like a more restrained, extended version of Saturday Night Live’s NPR spoof, “Delicious Dish.” But there’s more to it.

Tight-curled Sandra a.k.a. Coach B. (Stephanie Wright Thompson) leads the Mathletes, never changes out of her bright white reeboks, and maintains a stiff composure even when triple-dipping into the holiday Hawaiian punch. Her stoic straight-talk veneer is subtly interrupted by periodic tics, as if she’s being invisibly bit by a tiny bug. Her performance, and the acting across the company, is incredibly consistent and strong. The ensemble is at once equally committed to the veracity of their roles— characters deftly touching caricature— and to the cause of commemorating Mary and raising funds for their current student athletes.

I wondered if the generational references would falter, or fail to carry the show at some point in the hour and forty-five minutes, or if I would eventually tire of the cynicism-free “mm-kay, I like your idea but my concern is…” zone of the five teachers gathered to balance budgets and brainstorm themes (like one based on a Genesis concept album). But, the veneer of convivial camaraderie finally breaks-down. Ken’s overhead tutorial on the capabilities of the Businesscon 16 phone incites a collapse in process, and the show’s overt crisis—they don’t have enough volunteers to cover Ken’s “do more” inspired contribution of more phone lines. In part, Ken and Julie’s marital troubles, revealed in glimpses, seeps into the group dynamic. Ken falls apart, indicts David and the rest of the committee for being condescending. They take a few more “real-time” breaks. All this and the telethon ends up cancelled due to a winter storm. Brenda returns to work for the last meeting, in iconic Sally Jessy Raphael red glasses, and together they muster the energy to prepare for next year, collectively pausing to fathom the edge of the decade— 1990. Weird.

A dramatic tone poem, so thick on atmosphere, I still worried toward the end about the thinness of the arc, the shallowness of its depths. Sure, I enjoyed myself but I didn’t know exactly why, or what for. But then, after the door shuts and the lights go down on the last meeting, the TV pops on and we see a few short minutes of home video footage of a young girl, hamming it up for the camera, interspersed with track scenes of shot-putters, long-jumpers and runners. We’ve been, we now realize, miles away from Mary, the tragically killed track star at the heart of their efforts.

Ultimately, the show’s relentless commitment to detail and unflagging performances succeeds as its own kind of marathon: a non-stop, perpetual motion, long and exhausting effort to honor Mary, but also, perhaps to commemorate something else that inevitably gets lost in the process, in processes, and over time.

I tried to memorize all of the words to “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Back then, I couldn’t google the lyrics, so I wrote them on a piece of notebook paper and listened to it over and over again. Equally obsessive, “Miles for Mary” stages the mundane efforts to honor, year after year, a child’s life while also invoking another less tangible loss– the particular technological, psychological, and political zeitgeist of a moment that some of us once lived through. Maybe that’s why the performative political urgency of those two songs raced to mind.

The Mad Ones bring us to the precipice of the 90s— the time before the indelible experiential changes brought on by the Gulf War, Rodney King, 9/11, Facebook, orange alerts, the global financial crisis, Obama, Bin Laden, cyber terror, Trump terror, iPhone touch ID. Running a few steps beyond realism, the engrossing documentarian details bring us back so that we might feel this moment again. When perhaps, at least in hindsight, at least in our nostalgic naïve imaginations, such an earnest face-to-face commitment to a single cause, in a single room, for a single kid just might prevail.  

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