A review of “26 Miles,” a tender family drama about a road trip to Yellowstone, staged by Latino Theatre Projects at West of Lenin in Seattle through April 8.
Of course long-distance car trips with family members can often be tedious, annoying, quarrelsome.
But that’s in life, not in drama, where venturing forth on the great American blacktop is often a bonding experience and an everyday hero’s journey. So it is, and not in a too-gooey way, in the Latino Theatre Projects mounting of the Quiara Alegría Hudes play “26 Miles” at West of Lenin.
Hudes also penned the libretto for the Latin-beat musical hit “In the Heights.” But “26 Miles,” a bittersweet, serio-comic travelogue of mother and teenage daughter hitting the highway, has more in common with its author’s later Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Water by the Spoonful,” successfully staged here in 2015. Both plays display warm respect for human complexity and the complications of kinship in flux.
by Quiara Alegría Hudes. A Latino Theatre Projects production through April 8 at West of Lenin, Seattle; $20 (206-352-1777 or westoflenin.com).
Set in 1986, the semi-autobiographical “26 Miles” opens with a frantic, late-night phone call. It is a desperate cry for help from the intellectually precocious but touchingly naive 15-year-old Olivia (Klara Cerris) to Beatriz (Alma Villegas), her long-estranged Cuban-American mother.
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Beatriz lost custody of her daughter eight years earlier, but all the hows and whys aren’t apparent until fairly late in the 90-minute play. “26 Miles” keeps the engine running by unpacking familial mysteries one by one, so we get to share Olivia’s surprise as the truths gradually emerge.
Beatriz, who is ambivalent about her current mate (Fernando Cavallo), is all too eager to reunite with and “rescue” Olivia from her timorous, negligent father (Jeff Allen Pierce) and (unseen) wicked stepmother. So what better time for mom and daughter to get out of Dodge, heading west from suburban Philadelphia toward Yellowstone National Park?
Missing-persons caper? Not on this route. While “26 Miles” has a few trite elements (the mean stepmom, a Chicano street vendor’s poetic reverie about his wife’s tamales), Beatriz and Olivia contain layers of verve and depth. And we get to know them organically, as they cruise the country and get to know one another.
A beacon in Julie Beckman’s well-paced staging is the multihued performance by Villegas. Emotions play across her mobile features as she recounts the profound losses that darkened Beatriz’s whip-smart wit but did not dim her free-spirit gusto nor her maternal instincts. Her face can sag with regrets, then glow with mischief and delight while reminiscing about Olivia’s father at the Woodstock festival in her hippie heyday.
Cerris radiates the wide-eyed wonder of a bright science nerd whose curiosity and epiphanies about life and nature are chronicled in a personal newsletter we hear excerpts from. Moreover, she and Villegas share a strikingly genuine rapport.
Less obvious here is the sub-theme of cultural integration. Like Hudes, Olivia’s mother is Latina; her father white and Jewish. It’s a bit hard to believe that this adolescent hasn’t yet been identified with her Latina heritage by others, let alone examined it herself. Though perhaps that makes the scattered moments of learning Spanish from her mother all the more precious.
That would have been another meaningful avenue to explore. Nevertheless, this simply designed, persuasively acted production still arrives at the encouraging destination of “26 Miles” with heart and grit intact.