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Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Mad Ones
Blank Theatre Company
By Karen Topham

Also see Karen's review of The Last Wide Open and Christine's review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Karylin Veres and Rachel Guth
Photo by Elizabeth Stenholt / Your Face by Liz
About the time that Kelly, a wild and carefree high school senior, starts to sing "If we're gonna go we gotta go tonight" to her rule-following valedictorian best friend Sam, urging her to jump into a car and drive with no destination or timetable in mind–during the school year, mind you, and despite the fact that Sam has no driver's license–any healthy, sane parent might begin to question the appropriateness of this odd couple friendship. In the little-known 2017 Kait Kerrigan and Bree Lowdermilk coming-of-age musical The Mad Ones, though, the relationship between these unlikely friends is the single most essential element of the plot.

As Blank Theatre Company's production clearly shows, Kelly Manning (confidently played by powerful belter Karilyn Veres) does possess an outsized personality, but she does not impose an unwanted agenda on her friend. Samantha Brown (Rachel Guth in a personal, memorable performance) has already been wondering if perhaps a gap year spent traveling would satisfy the part of her that wants to shrug off the expectations of other people in her life. Most specifically, she is thinking of her hyperfeminist mother Beverly (the always wonderful Anne Sheridan-Smith), who has spent Sam's entire life grooming her daughter ("my girl") to protect herself against the patriarchy by getting an education at one of the Ivy League colleges (top choice: Harvard, but Sam has been accepted at every one she applied to).

The only male who is a regular part of Sam's life is her boyfriend Adam (Aidan Leake), a genuinely sweet and warm boy who lacks both intelligence and ambition–he just wants to work in his father's garage repairing cars–but is a fine young man with no red flags other than being wholly wrong for Sam. It's easy to imagine these nice, neighborly kids together; it's just that it's even easier to see their relationship falling apart after a year or two due to sheer boredom. Even his eleventh-hour proposal that they run away together (which almost exactly fulfills a warning Kelly had given to Sam earlier about boys) can't make him more exciting.

Kelly, on the other hand, is excitement personified. She and Sam are yin to each other's yang, but that just means they fit together perfectly despite their different personalities. Director Wyatt Kent even gives them movements that, from much past repetition, complement each other: two girls "improvising" choreographed dance moves. And both of them are fascinated by Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" as well. For Kelly, a non-reader who learned about the book from Sam, it suggests a yearned-for freedom. For Sam, who has memorized key passages (including the paragraph describing people Kerouac admired: "the mad ones" who live impulsively), this concept dovetails beautifully with her repeated dreams of being on the highway without a destination. (She really needs to get that license, and there are several comic interludes all about her struggle.)

They won't go on that trip together, though. (Spoiler ahead of a huge plot point, though one that is well-telegraphed and revealed early on.) Kelly, we learn, is dead; she was, rather ironically, hit by a car. The recursive structure of the play keeps bringing us back to that moment via the sound of a phone ringing–a sound that Sam pointedly ignores. It is this that pushes Sam into the crisis mode in which we first meet her: sitting in the driver's seat of Kelly's car alone, torn between going to college at all and fulfilling Kelly's and her dream by herself.

The Mad Ones is a simple, lovely musical. It doesn't chart any new ground, and not all of its songs work as well as they should (though Kerrigan and Lowdermilk succeed on enough of them that I looked them up on YouTube as soon as I could). Sam's struggle is familiar to anyone who has ever felt that their life is circumscribed by others' desires and goals for them. It is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever felt a need inside that others don't understand. Bree Lowdermilk is a trans woman, so it isn't difficult to believe that (even though it was written long before she transitioned) this musical holds in its heart a passion similar to the one that drove its author.

The Mad Ones, a Blank Theatre Company production, runs through August 11, 2024, at the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit