Theater review by Naveen Kumar
The title of 72 Miles to Go… measures the distance between a mother who’s been deported to Mexico and the family forging ahead without her on this side of the border. Set in Tucson, Arizona, between 2008 and 2016, Hilary Bettis’s topical new play dramatizes a heartbreaking predicament more often reduced to headlines and politicized in Washington debates. A frequent writer for television, Bettis uses sitcom conventions to humanize the plight of undocumented immigrants and their loved ones, couching an urgent and eye-opening endeavor in a form optimized for familiarity.
The action begins with a Unitarian pastor (Triney Sandoval) delivering a final sermon to the congregation he has served for 30 years. He cracks a couple of dad jokes before ripping up his prepared remarks to speak from the heart. He talks about seeing his wife for the first time and about sitting down to dinner with his kids; why don’t we realize, he asks, “how profound and beautiful and sacred these everyday moments are until they’re gone?” The play rewinds to the summer of 2008—time stamps are projected before each scene—to show us just such a moment between a father and his kids: a first day of school. The youngest (Tyler Alvarez) is an incoming freshman; his older sister (Jacqueline Guillén) is a senior. Their adult, undocumented half-brother (Bobby Moreno) lives with them too; their mom (Maria Elena Ramirez) scolds them, via speakerphone, to eat and dress properly.
Time fast-forwards as the kids come of age without their mother, whose absence they hope is only temporary. Potential roads to reunion or permanent residency become studies in frustration and dreams deferred, including for Moreno’s character, who sees a path to citizenship open up in 2012 through the DACA program. Bettis writes with care about a too-common predicament deserving of attention and concern. But although the playwright grants her characters the occasional particularity, her mission to convey that they are just like any American family can lend them a generic quality. The drama’s protracted timeline also necessitates continual, sometimes stilted exposition to explain what has happened between scenes. Directed with workmanlike precision by Jo Bonney on a modest unit set by Rachel Hauck, 72 Miles to Go… delivers its worthwhile message ready-made. Challenging audiences to meet the play halfway might have made the journey more compelling.
Laura Pels Theatre (Off Broadway). By Hilary Bettis. Directed by Jo Bonney. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.