Tuesday, March 10, 2020

An American immigrant family and an impossible divide, 72 MILES TO GO by Hilary Bettis at ROUNDABOUT THEATER

In 2020 ICE is a frightening fact of life for undocumented aliens, as is mistreatment at the border for asylum seekers; a far cry from "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

Lazerus' poem, long part of the American creed, is a question in 2020. With the rise of the Trump administration there's a belief among his supporters that illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, are unlike "us" Americans. They are criminals, interlopers stealing our jobs/resources. Ironically, this attitude ignores the reality that hardworking immigrants fueled America's climb to the top. The politics of hate has heated up a crisis in 2020, yet as 72 MILES TO GO Shows, the huge impact of immigrant policy on families is not new.

Set in Tuscon, Arizonia in 2008-16, the fissures between legal and illegal runs through the past and future of a divided family. The deepening of the schism between the American ideal and the criminal branding is precisely detailled in this new play by Hilary Bettis, directed by JoBonney. In 90 minutes both riveting and concise, familiar exchanges of daily life indicate what's unsaid. Understatement takes on devestating significance. This excellent cast touches you with the potential and poignancy of each character. The crescendo of feeling comes as a shock.

The play begins with the father Billy (Triney Sandoval)  explaining the problems of raising kids and how you don't appreciate them until they're gone. Around him is an empty kitchen, the soul of his family. His sadness begs the question of what's missing--his wife. Billy is a man finding his way. And Sandoval loses it deftly, as the children's perspectives take shape. Rachel Hauk's set design and Lap Chi Chu's lighting design are well used to develop mood shifts and passages of time.

In this American family, Eva (Jacqueline Guillen), an uber-competent teenager, wrangles her dreamy recalcitrant brother, Aaron (Tyler Alvarez) into shape for school. She manages clean clothes and nutritious food, checks up on his homework with a concern for excellence--her own school performance. Guillen's bossy big sister is an admirable "Mother Courage," cheerfully carrying on for the missing mother.  Eva is at once herself and her mother's words--They can do well if they work hard enough. Eva's hopeful this great country she admires, where she and her brother were born, where Billy's family lived for generations, will send her mother home.

When the phone rings, she's eager to talk to mom but puts it on "speaker" to get Aaron on track. Real American dreams hang in the balance. Eva has too much to do to focus on feelings. And you root for Guillen's very smart, competent girl. Her insecurity flares around  Christian (Bobby Moreno) her older brother, though he's not home much.

A man on edge, Christian wants a legitimate job, and is tired dodging cops. He rejects Billy, as a father and a pastor. The family's bitterly divided, wounds the missing mother-wife could heal if she were there. Moreno makes you feel the pain of a life struggling against hope. But inevitably for these kids, adult decisions will make their futures and who's guiding them? Will Eva, class valedictorian, seize her chance for college? Will Alvarez' Aaron, a puppyish boy, make the surprising leap to animal biology? Will Christian, finally find DACA stability? Will the estranged Billy ever regain the love of his life? Will Anita, his missing wife (Marta Ekena Ramirez), ever be more than a voice on the phone?

72 MILES TO GO broadens the idea of a typical American family to include the harsh reality for many divided immigrant families. Aspirng to the promise of America, they face a present of deferred dreams and yet are nutured by the love they share. This is a very moving play written with beautiful understated language. The  note-perfect cast is a pleasure to watch.  Roundabout's Laura Pels theater has given us a family play for these times.


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