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72 Miles to Go...

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 10, 2020

Jacqueline Guillen, Triney Sandoval, Bobby Moreno,
and Tyler Alvarez

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Hilary Bettis's new play, 72 Miles to Go..., kind of sneaks up on you. It begins in a Tucson church in 2016, where the pastor, Billy (Triney Sandoval), is giving what evidently is his farewell sermon. He offers what we soon will discover to be a somewhat idealized portrait of his family and home life, and he mentions, almost in passing, how people tend to ignore the small everyday moments in their lives, and "I can't help but ask why we don't realize how profound and beautiful and sacred these everyday moments are until they're gone." For the next hour and a half, as we flash back to 2008 and points between, what we'll witness is basically those small everyday moments.

They'll take place mostly in the small kitchen, one you wouldn't want to work in, where Billy lives for a while at least with his three kids, one of whom, Christian (Bobby Moreno), isn't really his. Mexican immigrants, they're eking out a hardscrabble existence in their adopted country, and disaster potentially awaits at every corner. Far from stock figures, they're highly individualized by Bettis, and they frequently surprise us. They have no accents at all—Christian doesn't even speak Spanish—and they talk American plain speak, usually on minor matters.

Christian is undocumented, about to marry his sweetheart and have three daughters, whom he'll indulge like the loving dad he is, while keeping an eye peeled for unsympathetic cops or ICE officials. Eva (Jacquelin Guillen) is the smartest girl in her high school senior class, seriously dating a boyfriend and not quite sure what career path she wants to take. Aaron (Tyler Alvarez), the youngest, is into video games, dissecting frogs, and, eventually, joining the Marines. The whole family desperately misses Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez), the wife and mom, who's stuck across the border in Nogales, 72 miles away. For most of the running time she'll be a presence by phone only, dispensing motherly advice and affection as best she can; by the time she finally shows up, we already have a vivid picture of her.

"You'll be home soon, I promise," Billy tells her, and the line is delivered by Sandoval with enough fervor to make you weep, but Anita won't be. There's great love among this brood, though they'll fight over nothing, and conflicts tend to ripen—Christian stops talking to Billy for two and a half years. Economically, they're comfortable enough, though Rachel Houck's set is modest to the point of shabbiness (alternate locales are just suggested—a wall projection for a sanctuary, two chairs for a car seat, that sort of thing).

But the American Dream remains largely out of reach for them, Bettis's point being that even minor infractions can have catastrophic consequences for such "undesirables" who really aren't. Christian gets pulled over for drunk driving; that costs him his bid for citizenship. Billy tries to sneak Anita across the border; he winds up in jail. DACA and the Dream Act loom temptingly, always just out of reach. Says Bettis in her program bio: "To the undocumented people: you belong here. You are the bravest amongst us. This country is your country."

Jacqueline Guillen and Bobby Moreno
Photo by Jeremy Daniels
Not in 2016 it isn't, though, and not now. 72 Miles to Go... reminds me of one of those mid-century works, like the play I Remember Mama or the movie Anything Can Happen, that offer a sentimentalized, episodic narrative of an ordinary immigrant family, only updated to our harsher recent past. Flawed as they are as individuals—Billy is voluble and moody, Eva is indecisive and unfaithful to her boyfriend, Aaron grows sullen and resentful, Christian is a good-time guy who avoids seriousness—they function ably as a family unit. As for Anita, she's pretty much a saint. "How do you live your life without your children?" she's asked. Ramirez pauses, summons up immense maternal dignity, and answers, "One moment at a time." Meanwhile, as the play ends, Trump's ginning up his campaign, and this country isn't so crazy about those huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Hugely dramatic events just don't occur for this bunch, and you'd be forgiven for wanting a little more heat onstage. But those small moments Billy sermonizes about do accumulate; one of the most potent scenes has the reconciled Billy and Christian just trying out terrible jokes on one another.

And the cast is all good. Moreno's all-American-ness doesn't compute at first, but you get used to it, and pretty soon you're rooting for this erratic but somehow appealing husband-and-dad. Guillen impresses in a scene where, giving the valedictorian address, she goes off script to editorialize about her mother's absence. And Alvarez transforms so completely from a geeky kid to a post-ADD vet, I had to check my program to make sure it was the same actor.

Jo Bonney directs in a straightforward, naturalistic mode suitable to the material, and by the devastating final exchange between Anita and Christian, you may be a little teary. This isn't the most exciting new play of the season, but it's one of the most humane.

72 Miles to Go...
Through May 3, 2020
Roundabout Theatre Company, Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street (Between 6th and 7th Ave)
For tickets and information: 212-719-1300 or