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World Premiere Wisconsin premiere of I CARRY YOUR HEART WITH ME at Third Avenue PlayWorks.
30 May 2023

Dancing Alone

Mike Fischer, for World Premiere Wisconsin
Dancing Alone Image

The Loneliness One dare not sound –
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size –
. . .

I fear me this – is Loneliness –
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate – or seal –

– Emily Dickinson, 1863


THERE’S AN APP 4 THAT at Pile of Cats Theatre Co.

Midway through the first act of Ned O’Reilly’s There’s An App 4 That – the Pile of Cats Theatre Company entry in World Premiere Wisconsin that I saw Friday night – the lonely main character goes ballroom dancing, without ever leaving home.

Taking a tip from her friend Zev (Mitch Taylor), Didi (Jesse Harrison) downloads an app that allows her to dance alone. “Nanobats . . . essentially give you artificial muscle memory,” Zev tells Didi.

Initially elated and grateful, Didi nevertheless fails to shake her sense that dancing is “just not the same without a partner.” But she can’t persuade her moody, soon-to-be ex to join her. Instead Didi later dreams of dancing with a man, only to collapse back onto the couch where she’s sleeping, still alone.

And so it goes in O’Reilly’s play, a satire which, for all its comedic moments, left me feeling melancholy as I watched its six characters – all in their 20s or 30s – flying solo, even when ostensibly together.

Which they often seem to be: because they live in identical apartments, multiple characters simultaneously appear on the same unit set, moving through their daily lives within different apartments, oblivious to one another.

As a result, those characters are seemingly close enough to touch but actually still far apart – an apt embodiment of how technology seemingly brings us together, even as it exacerbates the differences that divide us, leaving us more alone and remote than ever.

As suggested by his play’s title, O’Reilly underscores how isolated these characters are through the apps that dominate their lives. Those apps conjure virtual pets and a non-shaming alternative to porn. A simulacrum of a fully cooked meal and the “image of the perfect pal.” A fashion consultant and a dance partner who moves with the grace of Astaire.

But none of it’s real and, for Didi, it’s ultimately not nearly enough. What she craves – what all of the characters in O’Reilly’s play clearly need – is human connection, even as most of their efforts to actually talk to and reach each other devolve into argument and misunderstanding, exacerbated by glitching technology that leaves them even more alone.


In his recently issued general advisory on loneliness in America, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy took dead aim at our unhealthy relationship with technology. But Murthy also made clear that what he described as “our epidemic of loneliness and isolation” extends far beyond our increasingly pathological addiction to our phones.

More than 60 percent of Americans are struggling with loneliness and isolation; for more than a third, that affliction is chronic. Murthy urges us to “prioritize social connection” – not just by reforming our digital practices, but also by strengthening our social infrastructure and enacting “pro-connection public policies.”

“We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation,” Murthy writes, in the introduction to his report. “It will require reimagining the structures, policies, and programs that shape a community to best support the development of healthy relationships.”


Reading of THE LAST HOTEL at Shake Rag Alley.

Before seeing O’Reilly’s play on Friday night in Madison, I’d spent part of my afternoon in Mineral Point, where a reading of playwright Marcia Jablonski’s The Last Hotel drove home how lonely we are and will continue to be if we don’t heed Murthy’s call to invest more fully in our world and each other.

Sponsored by Mineral Point’s Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts as its WPW entry, Jablonski’s play takes us back to 1982, when the Reagan Administration’s draconian policies spawned a dramatic rise of unhoused people – which, in the last five years alone, has resulted in nearly one million Americans experiencing homelessness.

Back in 1982, one of them was Outsider artist Lee Godie, who inspired Jablonski’s Bailey Whitlock – living, as did Godie, on the streets, where only the phantom “Invisibles” she alone can see make her feel safe and warm at night.

But wary as she is of other people, Bailey also clearly needs them and craves their company; as one character will later say of her, what Bailey “loathes more than anything is being ignored.”

Hence as Jablonski’s play begins, Bailey (Lisa Duwell) is trying to reach us, seeking connection with various members of the audience through a nervy banter which reveals both how much she needs company and how sure she is that she’ll be ignored, rejected, or both.

As she indeed is, when she calls the phone number she’s been given by Carol (Melody Thompson), her onetime art school classmate, for situations like the one in which she now finds herself: out on the streets in a blizzard, freezing and with nowhere to go.

Jane (Autumn Shiley), Carol’s TA, is charged with taking such calls and helping Bailey find a place to stay. But when Bailey calls, a harried Jane initially ignores the phone as she tries to meet a grading deadline. Only when Carol orders her to pick it up does Jane take Bailey’s call and find her a hotel for the night.


What struck me in watching Jablonski’s play – which masterfully teeters between comedy and pathos – is how both Jane and the remaining characters surrounding Bailey can seem as lonely as is Bailey herself.

Young and insecure, Jane is too overworked to make room for a relationship; the embittered and envious Carol, who’d lived with Bailey in art school, winds up sleeping in the hotel with Jane and Carol rather than braving the storm. David (Paul Lorentz), alone and recently moved to town, similarly stays the night, lest he find himself stuck on a subway platform.

None of them really has anywhere to go; for all of them, this last hotel increasingly resembles a last chance, at forging the sort of connections that have frayed or failed outside its walls.

Little wonder, then, that Jablonski’s stage directions envision Jane and Bailey in “matching hotel jogging suits, freshly bathed with towels wrapped around their heads.” Or that Carol and Bailey are later described as “mirrors of each other with jogging suits and hair wrapped in towels.”

We’re more alike than you realize, Jablonski’s play continually suggests, even as one of her characters chronicles all the ways that “people are very cruel to the homeless” by treating them as different.

To her great credit, Jablonski avoids magical thinking; her characters’ growing sense of all they share doesn’t solve Bailey’s problems – or their own. But with humor and heart, it tallies the mounting cost to housed and unhoused alike if we fail to help each other and learn to live together, under the same American roof.


DEEPER MEANING at Tisch Mills Fringe Festival.

Saturday afternoon, I drove to Kewaunee to see the two WPW entries included in this year’s Tisch Mills Fringe Festival, a collection of six one-act plays presented in rotating three-play sets by the Forst Inn Arts Collective. All three plays I saw on Saturday profiled lonely people – and the perils awaiting us if we fail to find a way beyond our islanded selves.

First up – and the lone play on the afternoon’s docket that was not part of WPW – was Laurie Allen’s Trailer Trash, which offered a variation on The Last Hotel.

In Allen’s play, an older homeless woman named Doris (Kathy Kowalski) – initially dismissed as eccentric – eventually shines a light on all that’s missing in the lives of the people around her. Out to sea as Doris may be, it’s the younger Roxanne (Gracie Kolb) who is most lost, loveless, and alone; when Roxanne finally decides to help Doris, she is also helping herself.

Next was Martin Prevost’s Deeper Meaning, a dark comedy profiling a psychopathic professor, essentially entombed in the office where, for 15 years, his only window opens on a wall and he’s never seen cloud or sun.

Bored by his job and the poetry he’d once loved, Professor Robert Kinley (Eric Westphal) gets personal with a student (Raechal Wozniak-Sanford) about where and how his life went wrong – even as he indulges fantasies of strangling her as he’d once strangled a former student with whom he’d had an affair.

Professor Kinley can tell you what the characters in a Browning poem are feeling. But isolated and alone in his room, he can’t read and feels no empathy for the flesh-and-blood human beings reading those poems alongside him in his classroom.


ON YOUR SHOULDER at Tisch Mills Fringe Festival.

The day’s final play is among the bravest and most wrenching World Premiere Wisconsin plays I’ve seen since watching my first WPW entry back in mid-February.

Last year, actor and playwright Elizabeth Szyman unexpectedly lost her mother; as she makes painfully clear in performing her play On Your Shoulder, she’ll never again be the same. More to the point, Szyman tells us, the rest of the world – including real-life friend and actor Carrie Todd Counihan, performing alongside her – shouldn’t expect her to reprise her past self.

Szyman takes dead aim at a grief industry which unwittingly drives home what amateurs Americans are in confronting grief and death; as the late Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009), Americans share a wacky belief that positive thoughts can change the self and remake the world.

That leaves little room for grief – and, Szyman points out, in taking us through her own debilitating experience with its effects, fails to acknowledge that we grieve differently and on different time tables.

Even as Szyman chronicles her own journal of a harrowing year, the presence on stage of Counihan – who, we learn, lost her own mother in April – offers a powerful primer for those of us trying to support a grieving loved one.

Szyman’s play gives Counihan room to admit the frustration she feels, as the Elizabeth she’d once known disappears forever; genuine love, On Your Shoulder poignantly suggests, means learning to let go of the person you’d once loved, while learning to accept the person she’s since become and thereby opening your heart to who she might yet be.

There’s no sugar-coating here, about how hard such acceptance can be; director Thomas Moore emphasizes as much through blocking which continually brings the women together and then separates them; at times, only one is on stage, thereby channeling how lonely grief can be, for both the grieving, bereft person and the loved one grieving for her.


“To lose something,” writes Kathryn Schulz in mourning the loss of her father in Lost & Found (2022), “is a profoundly humbling act” because “it forces us to confront the limits of our will” by reckoning “with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, just gone.”

Like Schulz, Szyman emphasizes that she isn’t sharing her story because she thinks she is unique – except in the important sense that each of us lives with grief differently. Instead she is sharing her story, she confides, to remind us that we are not alone.

It’s through such sharing, Szyman tells us, that we can express the love we feel, saving ourselves and the world by reminding ourselves of what it means to be human: imperfect and mortal, but therefore all the more inspiring when we nevertheless find a way to reach beyond ourselves as Szyman has done here.

And as the best theater always does. Watching five plays staged in three far-flung Wisconsin communities across 27 hours, I’d witnessed the repeated, seemingly boundless generosity of playwrights bravely confronting how isolated we often feel and daring to hope we might do better. Last seen of the five, Szyman’s play aptly summarized what I’d experienced.

Even as she tells us how excruciating being around other people can sometimes be, Szyman also honors the loved ones within the supportive circles whose help gets us through to the other side.

On Your Shoulder doesn’t pretend to move beyond grief. But it dares to imagine a place where we can live alongside loss and find ways to live, buoyed by stories like this one showing us how, even when we must dance alone, we can do so together.


The productions discussed here are now closed; you can learn more about all of them as well as every other World Premiere Wisconsin show by visiting

Meet Mike

Mike Fischer wrote theater and book reviews for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for fifteen years, serving as chief theater critic from 2009-18. A member of the Advisory Company of Artists for Forward Theater Company in Madison, he also co-hosts Theater Forward, a bimonthly podcast. You can reach him directly at

Mike’s work as WPW’s Festival Reporter was made possible through the sponsorship of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF). Learn more: