A scholarship fundraiser in memory of a tragically deceased student is the kind of thing that grows a sense of purpose and community in a high school, with motivational messages and symbols in droves. In Miles for Mary, The Mad One’s much acclaimed 2016 production, now in Playwrights Horizons’ Redux series, just such a fundraiser is shaping up nicely: the budget is balanced, a theme has been chosen, the entertainment lineup looks entertaining, and a corporate sponsor has even donated new phones for the telethon. Anyone who has sat in on a few of these kinds of meetings knows the drill, and is rightly getting restless at the idea of watching a show about them.
Fear not. The committee’s to-do list is not what has the attention of The Mad Ones, a collaborative ensemble whose members have written and acted in the company’s four shows to date, usually under the direction of Obie-winning director Lila Neugebauer. They are more interested in the fine, nearly imperceptible interpersonal cues and relations between these six teachers, one of whom must phone in her participation on speakerphone due to a serious accident. “I love that we are giving each other slogans,” Brenda cheers through the static at the December meeting where they also exchange inspirational Secret Santa gifts. It’s a typical statement, we will learn, for this team that polices their language and feelings in ways we can hardly imagine these days, favoring encouragement, openness and positivity while discouraging criticism and negativity in all their insidious forms (they even administer fines for swearing – and the offenders actually pay these). All of that caring and carefulness in an Ohio high school circa 1988, at first seems cheesy, then, in a slow burn, proves to be the committee’s fuel and the show’s energy. For audiences wearied by the dissembling and “shitholes” of 2018, that’s reason enough for a remount of this big-hearted and devilishly funny production.
The zeitgeist of the late Eighties is everywhere on view in this neo-naturalistic production. If you went to high school in the decade of Ronald Reagan, Live Aid and Garfield, Amy Rubin’s set and Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes will either induce pangs of nostalgia or awaken a lingering PTSD (shoulder pads, tiny track shorts, big hair, Michael Dukakis, Genesis… are enough to do it to anyone). The show’s action takes place in the Garrison High School Phys Ed faculty office/lounge, which is crammed with sports gear, awards, file cabinets and faculty inboxes, not so unlike any school office these days, though there is, inevitably, what feels like a silent joke on the technology we had at the time, from clunky IBM PCs and AV projectors to drip coffee makers and Post-Its and white boards in lieu of Google sheets or Excel.
And there are those inspirational messages for which this committee, in the spirit of the day, has a particular penchant: after the always on-task track coach Sandra proposes to vote a resolution to “Do More,” (a move that is opposed only by econ teacher Ken, who wants to “quantify ‘do more’”), a dot matrix print-out of the motto appears on the wall, courtesy of Rod, the school’s popular Health teacher, who has apparently taken the message to heart.
It’s in that kind of environment – perpetually gung-ho with subtle notes of discord – that the committee will have to face a year’s worth of challenges, including Brenda’s health, Ken’s insecurities, and the leadership methods of wrestling coach David, plus an unwelcome surprise I won’t reveal. The Mad Ones slyly start and end the story in budget meetings because that’s where the proverbial buck stops, but this team turns out to be much more than a sum total of profits minus expenses, though the reasons why are all in the tiny line items: an offer of a ride, a concerned piece of advice, a patient wait for someone to express herself fully, and many heartfelt apologies when harsh words are exchanged. Everything eventually does blow up, of course, or there would be no dramatic tension; in a room of different personalities, this committee is only human, after all. But the razor sharp characterizations by the original cast of the Bushwick Starr production (Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Amy Staats, Stephanie Wright Thompson and Stacey Yen) underline what makes these teachers, precisely, so human.
One of the committee’s final tasks is to ask who will join it again the following year, and everyone’s hand goes up. We know by now, having observed the committee’s daily minutiae, that running the Miles for Mary telethon is a huge personal investment. So why do they do it? “It’s for the kids,” they repeat to each other, though they don’t need the reminder. I’d like to vote this committee straight into positions in Congress. As trite as it sounds, Miles for Mary is that feel-good show everyone should see now.
Miles for Mary runs to February 18th. More production info can be found here.