Amy Seeley and the Moline Madman

Factory Theater

By Justin Hayford

In the past few years it seems half the actors in Chicago have thrown their hats into the solo performance ring, believing that all they need to create a show is a quirky family or an abusive past–or better yet, both. Toss in some alcoholism and a terminal illness or two and you’re good for an hour onstage.

Then along comes Amy Seeley to remind us just how powerful theatrical autobiography can be. Amy Seeley and the Moline Madman may look like its numerous predecessors: Seeley just stands onstage and tells us about her odd family, building to her father’s battle with cancer. But her efficient storytelling–her keen eye for detail, sophisticated humor, and refusal to sentimentalize even the biggest tear-jerking moments in her life–separates her from the crowd. She never seems to be acting or even speaking from a script. You might think you were sitting around in her living room, listening to a story she can’t help but tell. It’s an evening so honest you might wish you’d brought something to hide behind.

Perhaps Seeley’s most intelligent departure from the one-person formula is her relative lack of interest in herself. In fact, her life story is something of a tangent; her real preoccupation is her father, the notorious downstate drag racer Wicked Sid Seeley, the Moline Madman (he got the moniker when his dragster’s parachute didn’t open and he crashed through a barricade into a cornfield–but as Seeley makes clear, he may as well have been born with the name). It’s his story she can’t help but tell, from his repressive fundamentalist childhood to his glory days on the racetrack to his harrowing confrontation with lung cancer. When she appears in her own narrative, it’s typically as a fidgety adolescent with nothing of interest to say. Next to her colorful father, she all but disappears.

But then, so would anyone this side of G. Gordon Liddy or Attila the Hun. As remembered by his daughter, the Moline Madman is a blunt, blustering steamroller of a man who does nothing but holler and stomp. He’s a speed demon always on the go, skipping out of town without warning, as though his main goal in life were to be somewhere else. On the day Amy was born, no one knew where he was; even an APB issued by the state police failed to uncover him. He surfaced half a day later when he telephoned the hospital from a racetrack in Wisconsin, asking his wife what she’d named the kid before scurrying back to his next heat.

This is the kind of anecdote most performers would relate with a stolid stare, artful tear in the corner of one eye. The absent father has become an easy target, and an even easier source of cheap pathos. But Seeley takes her father in stride, marveling at the man’s audacity–and marveling even more at her long-suffering mother’s easy understanding of her husband’s wanderlust. During her hour onstage Seeley never sets foot in Dysfunction-land, where so many monologuists will wander for hours. For reasons never articulated but always deeply felt, Seeley’s family members yell and sigh their way into one another’s hearts, not into therapy.

Seeley sets herself a difficult task in bringing her father to life onstage, for he led such a cartoonish life it’s hard to believe he was real. Case in point: during one drag race, his front wheel got lodged between the track and the grass, and his dragster flipped end over end. He landed in the hospital with a crushed everything. After recuperating he was stuffed into the back of a taxi, bandaged beyond recognition, where he promptly threw up into a tin cup, in the process coughing out his fake front teeth. The taxi driver cheerily reached into the backseat, took the cup, and tossed it out the window–leaving the Madman to watch as his puke and his teeth disappeared over a bridge and into a river.

Seeley’s portrayal of her father is something of a marvel. He screams every word at the top of his lungs, takes every step as though he were crushing jumbo cockroaches. Devoid of psychology, he merely pursues what he wants and goddamn anyone stupid enough to get in his way. Yet Seeley finds great nuance in his character, turning what might have been a one-note performance into a gorgeous melody. And through tiny, well-placed details she hints that the Madman’s sledgehammer of a personality may have been in part a defense against his childhood. He never had a birthday cake, she tells us in passing, until he turned 29.

In short, the Madman is an endearing terror, blown up to grotesque proportions by a child’s gaze. Although Seeley impersonates him only occasionally, she makes his presence felt throughout the piece, speaking with heartfelt candor and employing an ingenious device early in the evening, taking an excruciatingly long minute to describe her father’s face in detail: his unkempt mane of hair, his bushy muttonchops, his perpetual scowl, and his lone black eyebrow, stretching from temple to temple. As she describes him, she outlines these features on her face, painting her father’s face onto her own. The gesture is simple yet effective, turning Seeley into a screen on which her father is always projected.

Most impressive, Seeley manages to avoid the maudlin, even as her father crumbles to nothing under the weight of his cancer. She wastes no time in telling us how she felt as she took her stick-thin father into her arms for a final hug. She’s too busy remembering that she really, really had to pee. This moment is all the more poignant for its imperfection, as life has a way of mixing tragedy and farce.

Despite the extraordinary stories, Seeley’s piece is disarmingly modest. Though she wastes not a word, she never bothers to impress us with an artfully turned phrase. She never goes for the big, bold laughs, although the show is at times achingly funny. Unlike so many actors reliving their lives onstage, she doesn’t try to turn her experience into melodrama, slapstick, or moral lesson. She simply tells us what happened, reminding us why we’ve gathered in dark theaters for centuries: to hear the truth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Bo Blackburn.