The journey, not the destination

Dspite some too-literal bumps along the road, Profile's version of Quiara Allegría Hudes’ "26 Miles" provides a trip that sticks with you

High school is rough. In another era, tenth grader Olivia Jacob would have a blog or a YouTube channel. But it’s 1985, so she has to settle for handmade zines that she hands out at school and sends to her mostly absent mother, Beatriz, and her physically present but emotionally constipated father, Aaron. But when things get desperate, she finds herself embracing a source of solace that has called to restless hearts across the centuries: a road trip.

Quiara Allegría Hudes’ 26 Miles at Profile Theatre begins on the night that Olivia, after throwing up fifteen times probably from food poisoning, calls her mother in the middle of the night and sets in motion an accidental journey that sees their small, fractured family reconfigured.

On the road: Julana Torres and Alex Ramirez de Cruz. Photo: David Kinder

As most road trip stories know (this one included), the destination itself is almost always a bit of a disappointment. The journey is where everything good happens. The same might be said of 26 Miles itself: though the plot clangs against some clichés—a mystery doctor visit, a frigid and jealous stepmom, lines like “The woman he knew is gone”—Hudes’ lyric, poetic language almost always serves to lift the scenes above familiarity. Olivia’s monologues in particular, delivered with endearing teenage awkwardness by Alex Ramirez de Cruz, are delicate and lovely.

But Hudes’ poetry is rarely well-served by director Rebecca Martínez’s very direct staging. Daniel Meeker’s black, blocky set, crisscrossed with blue and green lines like a highway map and trimmed at the top with a thin video screen seems abstract, but Martínez puts it to very literal use, and her staging seems determined to find a naturalism that Hudes’ text defies. The events unfold in a series of gentle vignettes, linear, but not propelled by a powerful or direct momentum. By chopping them into sharply delineated scenes, Martínez loses the emotional, lyrical threads of the story, making the crux of Olivia and Beatriz’s climactic conversation feel like it comes out of the blue. These threads weave in and out of focus by design: trying to force them into a straight line just disrupts the pattern.

Fortunately, Ramirez de Cruz as Olivia and Julana Torres as Beatriz, flanked by Chris Harder and Jimmy Garcia as a series of characters, most prominently Aaron and as Beatriz’s husband Manuel, dive eagerly into the richness of Hudes’ lines, wallowing in their weirdness and filling out every corner of their complex, contradictory characters. Hudes is an immensely sympathetic writer (at least as far as the characters who actually appear onstage are concerned—sorry, Deborah), and even the men, who seem at first poised to be villains, are given space for their full humanity, for their confusion and their fear, for love that doesn’t always express itself the way it should.

Jimmy Garcia and Julana Torres. Photo: David Kinder

This sympathy does not mean a lack of culpability, however. By centering the play on the bright, artistic, awkward Olivia, Hudes never allows us to forget that even though Aaron and Beatriz’s mistakes are inevitable byproducts of just being human, they still cause Olivia immense pain. Parents may be humans, too, but that knowledge does not necessarily alleviate their child’s suffering.

It is a play that has continued to unfold in my mind in the hours since I watched it. Snippets of dialogue and monologue return; connections that I missed (some because they were underemphasized in the production) suddenly click together. The journey might not go as smoothly as it could, but it’s still one that sticks with you.

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Profile Theatre’s 26 Miles continues through June 25 on the Morrison Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

 

 

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