- Dallas Morning News review (pay wall)
- Pegasus News review
- FrontRow review
Call it a case of J. D. Salinger Overkill. After he successfully populated his stories with precocious kids, I’ve had trouble believing such creatures when other authors employs them — not when the fictional teen spouts Grand Metaphors, at any rate. Salinger’s little Zen masters — the surly and the matter-of-fact ones — were marvels, but very few writers have done them credibly since.
In 26 Miles, the moment of disbelief comes early in this 95-minute-long, intermissionless play by Pulitzer finalist Quiara Alegria Hudes, given its area premiere by Kitchen Dog. The opening monologue by the teenage daughter, Olivia, played by Allie Donnelly (above, with Ashley Wood) is about pickpockets and her personal journal, and it’s oddly unconnected to the rest of the play, but we’ll set that aside for now. The moment I’m talking about follows soon after. Beatriz, played by Christina Vela, has picked up daughter Olivia, angrily snatching her away from her re-married ex-husband in Philadelphia because the inconsiderate lunk doesn’t seem to be paying much attention to the girl. She’s been throwing up all night. When it turns out Olivia’s OK, the two head out on the road anyway.
And that’s when Olivia demands that they must go to Yellowstone. Why drive all the way to Wyoming? Because Olivia needs to feel the thunder of buffalo hooves. She has a poster photo of a buffalo in full gallop, all four legs off the ground, and she needs to see and hear them, to see if they can fly or are they grounded and real.
OK. As the destination and the justification for this cross-country, mom-and-daughter, Thelma-and-Louise road trip, this flies about as well as a winged buffalo would. It’s weighted down by the obvious poeticisms, the Important Meaning being conveyed. Olivia could just have declared, “Let’s all go look for America – or unicorns or something,” but in either case, one stops thinking of her as a 15-year-old and more as an authorial indulgence and stand-in.
It’s a pity because Hudes actually has a knack for unfolding complex and touching human interactions. Beatriz’ ex-husband (Wood) and her current husband (Chris Carlos) are more sympathetic and detailed than just your Typically Doggie and Unreliable Men. Wood even makes the ex seem well-meaning even as he’s been clueless and cruel. Similarly, Beatriz herself begins as another Latina hydrogen bomb — screaming in rage when she isn’t suspicious and bullying (she demands Olivia prove she’s not pregnant — remember the night of vomiting?). But Beatriz is mad for good reason: She lost custody of Olivia eight years earlier in a nasty divorce. And the opportunity to repair their bond is one she simply can’t let go now.
It also needs to be said: The volcanic Vela may be the sexiest angry woman on a North Texas stage. She’s scary but she seems to relish the sheer sensuality and clarity of rage. Yet there’s an openness and comic fearlessness here: All that fury can wash right out of her and the next moment, she can smile and boogie like a smitten teen at her first rock concert. The two Big Women at Kitchen Dog — Vela and Tina Parker (who directed 26 Miles) — are often the driving forces in the company’s shows.
Sometimes, Hudes’ lyrical dialogue pays off as well — as in a quirky interlude the playwright provides in North Dakota. Stopped for a restroom break, mother and daughter encounter a Peruvian immigrant (Chris Carlos, again), who sells them tamales. His account of falling asleep to his wife’s cooking is a hymn of rapture. In Carlos’ beautifully delivered cameo, one doesn’t know which is more seductive, drifting to sleep or savoring the cumin.
Overall, it’s a nifty move by Hudes, re-casting the mythic, buddy-movie, Huck-and-Jim, Sal-and-Dean, on-the-road scenario into a mom and daughter deal — and doing it onstage, to boot. Designer Cindy Ernst has provided a multi-tiered, rock-layered, wind-eroded set which suggests the Dakota Badlands (metaphor! ) even though the two women drive through there for only one scene. Most of the play is set in Philly or Yosemite. In any event, the set has ingenious things popping out or sliding open so this stage play can keep up with the mileage going past.
But 26 Miles‘ episodic, voyage-of-mutual-discovery seems to drift and decouple rather than link up and cohere into something memorable or convincing. For one thing, people seem to brush off suicide atttempts rather lightly here. And violations of privacy in the way of journal entries (most family road trips, I suspect, would have shut down with those particular revelations).
But it has more to do with my lack of belief in the daughter — which is not a knock against Donnelly, who’s remarkably assured onstage for such a young performer. But she’s saddled with those self-conscious, direct-address moments about her journal entries, and they puzzle us more than reveal Olivia’s inner life.
Of their bison-dreaming, journal-keeping daughter, Beatriz tells her ex, “She’s an intellectual — like you.” Which sounds like an explanation. Or a confession of frustration. Because it doesn’t really explain much, does it?