With the same exciting energy that she brought to In the Heights, Quiara Alegria Hudes has penned touching reflections about a family dealing with estrangement, remorse, and cultural dissonance as fifteen year old Olivia blossoms into maturity. While the basic premise sounds traditional enough—girl runs off with estranged mother on an unexpected road trip, and they learn more about each other along the journey—this one has an added twist in their navigation of the cultural divide between them.
The two leads –Zabryna Guevara as red hot, fire-cracker Cuban missile momma Beatriz, and Laura C. Harris as the docile, constantly slouched, easy target to be picked on Olivia—have a natural rapport as they cautiously find ways to talk to each other after years of separation. And this isn’t just a run of the mill kind of separation, but instead verges on abandonment, at least for Olivia, who hasn’t heard from or spoken to her mother from a tender childhood age. There’s been no contact, visitation, not even an annual ritual over the holidays, just flat out banishment, at least as rendered by the courts, since custody was awarded to the father. These details are revealed slowly during the trip, and it’s a lot to comprehend and digest. In fact, if one ponders the situation too much, it becomes downright bewildering. That’s the dilemma of this piece– trying to make sense of all the emotional roller coaster puzzle pieces that twist and turn together in the storyline without falling off the track.
The actors do a superb job relaying the fine points of their characters, or more accurately, the blunt characterizations depicted in the serial scenes, because that’s what they are – broad brushstrokes of the characters’ lives in specific moments of interaction, like moving snapshots. As can be imagined, snapshots, even moving ones, can only tell so much and only go so deep. If one can be content watching a bitter sweet rendering of this quirky drama, and there’s so much to appreciate, then the play works. If one has more need to understand the motivation and thrust of what makes characters do what they do, and say what they say that goes beyond “because the script says so,” then there might be a bit of head scratching and suspending of belief while watching 26 Miles.
The suspending starts at the very beginning when Olivia calls her mother after a traumatically embarrassing event at school. The details of the cataclysmic event unfold throughout the play, but suffice it say that Olivia was more traumatized by the situation than she let on in that phone call. What sounded like a typical call to a mother for support, a listening ear, a friendly ally who would understand her plight, turns into a furious reaction where Mom gets so riled up by the interchange that she leaves her own husband in bed, drives out to Olivia’s place, and wrenches her out of the wretched environment.. How, we wonder, can the characters were able to zoom to this level of trust, connection and interaction after years of no contact?
The rest of the story consists of vignettes between the two, sharing insights and observations, touching reflections, sometimes even clarity. What the play lacks in character analysis is more than compensated by the tender passages of sharing between the two, sometimes painful, other times humorous, some breathtakingly poignant. Guevara grasps the throes of hurt in her character that manifests as catalytic spewing spitfire, adding a human element to what would otherwise be a stereotypical lava- hot, chica cubana. Her insistence in seeing proof for herself that Olivia is not pregnant occurs in one of the most humiliating scenes I’ve witnessed in a while, and while her Mommy Dearest emotional derangement seems over the top, Guevara keeps the powder keg moment in tight control. As does Harris as Olivia, whose entire body and facial expressions reflect wonder and quiet seethings as she deals with the vicissitudes of her ever-changing life.
Olivia is an avid writer and she processes her experiences in blog-like passages. Harris desperately grasps the notebook and pen scribbling out her thoughts like her life depends on it, and in a way it does. The play illustrates the power of the written word. Beatriz coaches her daughter to write out her hurt on pieces of paper, even naming names, and throw it away instead of lashing out or being consumed by it. Again, questions about where this sudden tool of maturity comes from or why it wasn’t used before don’t begin to have clues or answers. Still, it’s a useful device that is passed down from mother to daughter with touching results.
Michael Frederic as Olivia’s father Aaron does a fine job relaying his character’s interesting, even if pathetic journey. As Aaron, Frederic displays the anguish and conflicted feelings about his daughter but with the script yanking him into a tiny corner, quietly detaching and abandoning her. He comes across as spineless, pitiful and weak, and that doesn’t do justice to the character who raised his daughter as a single dad. Triney Sandoval as the mom’s second husband is similarly ham fisted into a quiet reacting role of listening and supporting usually relegated to the female roles, so this reversal is at least superficially refreshing.
The simple set design by Daniel Conway beautifully reflects the basic issues being covered—human relationships, like any living entity, have to be cared for, nourished and nurtured to survive and thrive. Set panels slide back and forth, as the women slip into a makeshift Buick chassis for their trips. A tall spiral stairway with platform on top pivots effortlessly, elevates the playing area and even serves as a very creative mountainous canyon for the characters to “climb’ and overlook some of the panoramic views. Speaking of which, Conway’s formidable double duty as projection designer is equally effective in helping to create the settings for a cross-country feel. Sound designer Zachary Williamson keeps a fun-filled Latin beat going, and director K.J. Sanchez balances the production just right without tipping over into maudlin sentimentality.
Billed as a one-act, 26 Miles is brief and lithe enough to make its point without overstaying its welcome, and includes enough bright patches of discovery in exploring the characters’ quest for personal and cultural identity. This engaging and innovative sketch of a story contains hints of the lyrical and transformative magic that made Hudes a finalist for the Pulitzer – twice. Seeing what she can do with an adolescent’s journal, piercingly vulnerable human interactions, and an open road, portends to wonderful journeys yet to come.
Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by K.J. Sanchez
Produced by Roundhouse Theatre, Co-production with Two River Theater Com of Red Bank, NJ
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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