BWW Review: A Family Is Separated By Immigration Policies in Hilary Bettis' 72 MILES TO GO...
If it were up to Billy, the sweet-natured Unitarian pastor who opens Hilary Bettis' 72 Miles to Go... speaking to audience members as if they were members of his Tucson, Arizona congregation, the play about his family would be one of those warm domestic comedies where the kids learn valuable life lessons guided by their wise, but somewhat goofy dad.
He sure tries making it so, always ready to try and lighten any situation with a (usually terrible) joke ("What do you call a fake noodle? An impasta.").
But Billy, played by Triney Sandoval with teddy bear appeal, is a Chicano man married to Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez), a Mexican woman he met while leaving out bottles of water in the desert for refugees after she and her young son fled, undocumented, across the border.
When the 90-minute play flashes back from his sermon in 2016 to his family's kitchen in 2008, their two teenage children, Aaron (Tyler Alvarez) and Eva (Jacqueline Guillén) are preparing for the first day of the new school year and mom wishes them well via cell phone, because she was recently deported to a center in Nogales, Mexico, 72 miles away, after being stopped by traffic police for a broken taillight.
Christian (Bobby Moreno), the child Anita took across the border, is now 23 and, with the necessary documentation not at hand, lives in fear that ICE will take him away before his DACA application can be approved.
In scenes spanning the next eight years we see typical moments from family life tinged with the frustration and fear derived from Anita's physical absence as she applies to have her status changed and Christian's uncertain future, even as he gets married and has children.
Eva, who slips into the role of family caretaker, feels the absence of a woman to talk with when it comes to subjects like dating and prom night. She becomes class valedictorian and interrupts her planned graduation speech to improvise a plea for more compassionate immigration laws.
"We all have struggles. This, I think, is what it means to be human."
Aaron grows from a nerdy kid to a strong and mature marine, but on a visit home it seems his experiences during wartime have heightened feelings of abandonment. Christian develops increasing resentment towards his stepfather for actions that could have exposed him to immigration officials.
An especially touching episode has Billy, alone in the kitchen, setting up a romantic anniversary dinner as he shares intimate conversation with Anita via phone. As he dines on his mayo-drenched tuna dish and she takes in spoonfuls of SpaghettiOs, they tenderly speak of their loneliness, both emotional and physical, and devotion to each other.
Between every scene, projections inform us of how much time has passed, and as the action inches closer, but never reaches, 2017, the audience's awareness of the national events to come informs our understanding of their situation.
What is so effective about Bettis' play, which is subtly emphasized by Jo Bonney's straightforward direction, is how all the yelling and campaigning and debating over the issues at hand are boiled down to how national policies affect the unremarkable events for what would otherwise be a typical American family. It may be a bit of a cliché, but 72 MILES TO GO... simply asks us to consider the people behind the numbers.