The Curious premiere of 26 Miles goes the distance
Olivia, a fifteen-year-old girl living unhappily with her father, Aaron, and stepmother (who's never seen on stage and appears to be either vicious or neurotic to the point of pathology), finds herself throwing up uncontrollably for reasons we'll learn only later in the play. In a fever pitch of loneliness and misery, she calls Beatriz, the estranged mother who lost custody of her when she was six. Beatriz, volatile, bossy, sensual, smart and insecure, swoops by to pick up her daughter, and a fraught road trip ensues.
26 Miles is part of the National New Play Network, a program that assures new plays are produced by at least three member companies during their first year, and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, a previous Pulitzer finalist, has high and worthy ambitions for it. Her script is about identity, love, our essential aloneness in the universe, explorations and dreams, multiculturalism and the way we're all, in some sense, like separate mountains undergoing vast but subtle tectonic shifts. Olivia has always wanted to travel from the narrow confines of her Jewish father's home; Beatriz has fiercely yearned for her lost daughter.
There's a lot of symbolic freight here, riding on a rather undeveloped plot, and this freight is carried primarily by the playwright's verbal metaphoric flights. Olivia speaks of a photograph she once saw of a running buffalo framed by snow, and later describes a Japanese mountain climber, now "frozen in time." The play begins with a disquisition on wallets and pickpockets — What if you went through life stealing wallet after wallet? What if you're the kind of person who holds on to the same wallet for a lifetime? — that hints at profundity and significance but doesn't deliver. At one point, the metaphor is made flesh. A man appears out of the mist selling tamales and describes the way his wife makes them in wonderfully earthy and affectionate terms. I loved this moment, which clearly represents nurturance and commitment, and I loved the way Beatriz — betrayed by the two most important men in her life — reacted to it: "That's the only true recipe I ever heard." But later I wondered, who was this man? What was he doing wandering through the mist with his wares?
The rest of the plot doesn't bear a whole lot of thinking about, either. We learn from Beatriz that her partner, Manuel, cheated on her, but never how or why. The actions of Olivia's father — who once fought Beatriz bitterly for custody — make no sense at all, even if he's supposed to be under the thumb of his new wife. The man is incomprehensibly passive. He provides no support for Olivia while she's home, and raises no objections when she's carried off by her mother, who has no visitation rights. He refuses to answer the dozens of phone messages the girl leaves while on the road. It's impossible to imagine a parent of any stripe this unconcerned about an absent minor child.
Plot matters, because Hudes isn't the kind of playwright whose meaning emerges from the sort of magical leaps we find in Sam Shepard, Sarah Ruhl and Hudes's own mentor, Paula Vogel: toaster-filled kitchens, ubiquitous stuffed rabbits, standup routines in Portuguese. There's nothing of the absurd here, and the focus is on language rather than coruscating physical images. Though Hudes's language is often very beautiful, 26 Miles would be stronger if she focused more on the relationship between Olivia and Beatriz — both fascinating characters — and less on her own lyricism. She does this during the first half, when the two women are discovering each other: Beatriz teaching Olivia some words of Spanish; Olivia proclaiming that she prefers Chopin to Santana. And there's a nice flashback that brings together many elements and reveals a lot about this family's dynamics, showing the young Beatriz and Aaron experiencing the ecstatic stoned wallow of Woodstock. At these points, an essential wisdom and tenderness shine through the text. But eventually, the play becomes static.
The tech — Michael R. Duran's set, Brian Freeland's sound design, Dick Devin's lighting — is perfect. In addition to knockout performances by a charmingly offbeat Ana Nogueira as Olivia, and Gabriella Cavallero — finally given a role in which she can stretch her wings — as Beatriz, Jose Antonio Mercado provides a warm Manuel, and Kevin Hart makes the infuriating Aaron real and conflicted. This is a beautifully honest production, and though Hudes's script still needs work, the play's already well worth experiencing.
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