(l to r) Jacqueline Guillen, Triney Sandoval, Bobby Moreno and Tyler Alvarez in ’72 Miles to Go…’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)
By Samuel L. Leiter
72 Miles to Go…, an earnest but middling new play at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre by Hilary Bettis (TV’s “The Americans”), goes beyond the headlines to examine the impact of America’s draconian immigration laws on a family caught in its jaws.
Jo Bonney provides efficient direction, and its quality five-member cast gives it plenty of heart, but there’s something too by-the-numbers about it. The play, at times, comes off as a dramatized op-ed designed to bullet-point the struggles encountered by families trapped in the web of undocumented immigration.
Billy (Triney Sandoval), an American-born, Unitarian minister of Mexican heritage, lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his children: Eva (Jacqueline Guillen), her younger brother, Aaron (Tyler Alvarez), and an older stepson, Christian (Bobby Moreno). His wife, Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez), however, has been deported to her native Mexico for circumstances never explained. Anita’s only 72 miles away in Nogales, but her anxious family stays in touch with her via cellphone calls, delivered through live offstage audio spoken by Ramirez.
Framed, more or less, by a sermon being delivered by Billy, the action spans from 2008 through 2016, displayed as projected titles. We watch the family grow older and struggle to survive without the physical presence of its maternal figure. Eva and Aaron are first seen as excellent high school students with promising futures. At the same time, Christian, undocumented and hoping for resolution via the DACA program, tries to make the best of his precarious situation.
As the years go by, Eva and Aaron evolve into young adults, while Christian marries and has kids. Billy and Anita maintain their romantic relationship via the phone, although cognizant of each other’s physical needs. Billy gets in trouble for a legal infraction, forcing him to wear an ankle bracelet. And, Anita, her appeal to return home rejected, is forced to wait another ten years before she can reapply.
Bettis is at pains to make this family as familiarly middle-class American and mutually affectionate as any you might see on a TV sitcom. Billy, for example, enjoys making bad puns, and at one point even has a punning contest with Christian. This provides several groan-worthy laughs but little more.
Many family feuds resemble those all parents and children go through, exacerbated by the constant fear of their lives being disrupted at any minute. One scene, for instance, depicts Christian and Aaron hiding in terror when a squad car’s red lights flash outside their home, fearful that Christian might be deported. While it’s entirely possible that the family could be as universally sincere as this one is, they seem more like amiable props supporting a complex national crisis than real people caught up in a horrific dilemma.
Rachel Hauck’s rather dull-looking set spreads furniture across the stage so that the same space can be used for several locales, although not always distinctly. The low, ceiling-less walls allow a cloudy vista, with a couple of telephone poles, to be seen above them. Only when the walls rise for a scene in Mexico, showing the characters in silhouette, do we get a striking image. Emilio Sosa’s costumes, Lap Chi Chu’s lighting, and Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design all make satisfactory contributions.
What should be a focused treatment of enormous national significance comes across as a desultory accumulation of scenes leading to an inconclusive conclusion. The problem of undocumented immigration deserves a more incisive and illuminating treatment than 72 Miles to Go…
72 Miles to Go…
Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 W.46th St., NYC
Through May 3
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited nearly 30 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. His reviews for 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 are available in the Theatre’s Leiter Side series on Amazon.com. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.