Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
October 14, 2011
Here’s a dramatic question: How many issues can a writer cram into one 90-minute play?
Quiara Alegría Hudes , the gifted Pulitzer Prize finalist who wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning “In the Heights,” seems to have saved up every social concern that’s ever crossed her mind, and dumped them all into “26 Miles.”
Let’s see: There’s teen bullying, mixed-marriage, remarriage, infidelity, custody battles, Latin culture, father-daughter relationships, mother-daughter relationships, stepmother-daughter relationships, ex-spouse relationships; teen sexuality, teen and adult identity crises, love, loneliness and suicide; plate tectonics, magical realism, intrepid explorers and the land where the buffalo roam. And that’s not even everything that’s going on here.
If the play were set in the present, rather than in 1986, the central character would be a blogger. But 10th grade Olivia writes a ‘ zine , which she distributes to her cruel classmates and distracted father, a Jewish man who has remarried since he left Olivia’s Cuban-born mother, whom she hasn’t lived with for ten years and hasn’t heard from for five months.
Then, in the middle of one awful night, when Olivia’s father ignores her nonstop vomiting and goes back to bed, she calls her mother, who spirits her away and they’re off on an extended road trip. But this is no inter-generational Thelma and Louise. They fight, they screech, they say hurtful things. And then, somewhere on the way from Paoli, PA to Yellowstone National Park, they manage something of a connection. Sort of. Metaphorically, they take magical flight together – momentarily. And then they drive back home.
There are several moments of genuine, poignant interaction, but mostly, the ideas and issues whiz by like the passing scenery. The video projections tend to be the most consistently engaging part of this Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company production, a West coast premiere.
The piece starts out with considerable overacting, and the women can be screamy and shrill. Add to that Cassie Benavidez’s heavy Cuban accent as Beatriz — the wayward, histrionic Mom — and you have some difficult listening. Both Benavidez and talented, 17 year-old Hannah Rose Kornfeld as Olivia, have wonderful moments. But some of the most moving and sensitive scenes get emotional short shrift. The two men – Jacob Bruce and Raul Cardona — provide ballast and range in their multiple roles.
Overall, though the production, directed by Seema Sueko , has energy, earnestness, and a dollop of humor amid the harrowing tales, it lacks subtlety and nuance. Mo’olelo is a commendably issue-driven company, but here, we fail to get caught up in the characters.
When Olivia finally does see the Wyoming scene she’s been coveting her whole life, she finds it briefly thrilling, and then disappointing. Same can be said for this play and production.
“26 Miles” continues through October 23 at the 10th Avenue Theatre downtown.
©2011 PAT LAUNER