72 miles to go ... at Alley Theatre Still Has a Ways to Go

Melissa Molano as Eva and Orlando Arriaga as Billy in 72 miles to go ...
Melissa Molano as Eva and Orlando Arriaga as Billy in 72 miles to go ... Photo by Lynn Lane

Except for the rock-solid and affecting performance from Orlando Arriaga as Billy, whose paterfamilias attempts to hold his Tucson, Arizona, family together during the years that his undocumented wife Anita (Briana J. Resa) has been deported to Nogales, Mexico, there's nary a touch of truthfulness to be found in Hilary Bettis' 72 miles to go...

Workshopped at the 2019 Alley All New Festival after readings at various New York and New Jersey theaters, this heartfelt play remains a work in progress, despite its formal premiere at Manhattan's prestigious Roundabout Theatre in February, 2020. Unfortunately the opening occurred at the exact moment COVID closed all theaters. This Alley production is the play's first true run.

72 miles covers a tumultuous eight-year span when Billy's family is at its most disjointed. Grown stepson Christian (Christopher Salazar), out on his own and discontent, constantly clashes with Billy. What are you doing to get mom home? is his nettlesome whine.

Teen daughter Eva (Melissa Molano), assumes mom's role but pines for her absent mother. She's growing up fast and needs the comforting maternal shoulder that Dad can't provide, no matter how hard he tries to empathize. Youngest son Aaron (Juan Sebastian Cruz), bullied at school and missing the distant mother he barely remembers, emotionally flails in the shadow of his dominating older brother and feisty sister. Husband Billy misses the physical intimacy. With mom gone, all are adrift. The video phone chats, eagerly anticipated, don't satisfy. They make the family's daily grind worse.

This is rich personal material, but Bettis mines only the surface, using swathes of exposition to cover many ellipses. In serpentine digressions, we learn that Christian, hiding in full sight in the shadows, lives in terror of deportation. He was a baby when Anita fled to the United States. Billy found them near dead in the Sonora desert, married Anita, and adopted Christian. His son's wariness and belligerence are natural byproducts. Anxious, he waits for his DACA authorization, living near the precipice, panicking when he hears a police siren in the night. Salazar catches these dichotomies with great command, but Bettis never fully commits. She doesn't commit to any of them. The characters fly off in directions not explained, or they explode in unprepared outbursts. It's impressive, melodramatic, but sadly distancing.

Right at the start, Molano and Cruz (who later comes brilliantly into his own as hardened Afghanistan war veteran on the cusp of PTSD) are rather mature to play adolescents. In the intimate Neuhaus, we're too close to disregard theater's suspension of disbelief. In today's theater, if you're playing a teen it's best to be a teen.

The small Neuhaus is set up as theater in the round. Director José Zayas, a close collaborator with Bettis, doesn't make use of the peculiar spacial problems inherent in this configuration. Theater in the round demands movement, lots of it, so the audience always gets a full view and doesn't feel cheated. Zayas blocks the action as if staged within a proscenium. Once an actor turns his back on us we miss the facial reactions – an actor's bread and butter – temporarily we lose that charged emotional connection. Is that why this play seems one-dimensional?

Bettis skips through the years as if flipping through calendar pages like a montage from golden age Hollywood. After brief blackouts, characters flip through traits and morph into new personas. Babies appear, old flames disappear, prickly characteristics smooth out while new ones surprise. Even set designer Kevin Rigdon's coup de theatre – a 360º desert sky panorama, luminous and deep that surrounds the theater's upper perimeter – is botched by being revealed a scene too early. It should astonish us at the climax: resignation (twilight) or perhaps hope (dawn). Too soon, and the wonder dissipates.

The play doesn't flow easily and isn't helped by the many pregnant pauses Zayas inserts at the end of scenes. This theatrical artifice saps Bettis' momentum and allows us time to ponder the script's most glaring inconsistency. As American citizens, why can't Dad, Eva, and Aaron get in the car and visit Mom in Mexico anytime they want? Nogales is only a day trip from Tucson. What's stopping them? Did I miss something?

Arriaga is the play's heart. Burly and panda-like, entirely natural, he effortlessly keeps this play afloat with his easy, affable style. He's so sweet, you wonder why his kids hassle him. We're on his side from the first scene where he preaches his final homily to his congregation, using dad jokes to ingratiate and draw us immediately into the play. When he's not in a scene, we miss him.

Except for the final tableaux, Resa's Anita is a voice on the phone, but her words and delivery are cold and distant. They ring false. Where's the warmth, the motherly embrace from afar?

72 miles has problems. It needs polish and another eye to guide it smoothly to the stage. Without question it's relevant; but timely, ethical, and moral national issues don't always guarantee compelling drama.

72 miles to go...  continues through November 14. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. Following COVID protocols, all audience members must wear masks and show proof of a negative COVID test within the last 72 hours or proof of vaccination. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit $47-$60.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover