Friday, March 24, 2017

"26 Miles" a rewarding journey of personal discovery

Klara Cerris and Alma Villegas in 26 Miles (Michael Brunk)
26 Miles
Latino Theatre Projects
(at West of Lenin)
Through April 8, 2017

In 2015, Theatre22 produced a play by Quiara Alegria Hudes, Water By the Spoonful, which garnered 10 Gypsy Rose Lee nominations and three wins. It had also won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Director-nominee Julie Beckman directed a super production of that play and has returned to Hudes at a different company for her 26 Miles, produced by Latino Theatre Projects.

So, this production was much anticipated, and does not disappoint. Hudes’ style here is different from Water By the Spoonful, but still smart, thoughtful, and very true to life. This play is very personal to Hudes. It reflects her own life growing up in Philadelphia. It is set in 1986 with a 15 year-old girl protagonist. That’s one of the small differences that “fictionalizes” the play, since Hudes was born in 1977, not 1971.
But Hudes and character Olivia Jacobs were both born to a Jewish father and Latina mother. In this play, Beatriz is Cuban and Hudes’ mother was Puerto Rican.

Olivia (Klara Cerris) is living with her father, Aaron (Jeff Allen Pierce) and a hated and hostile step-mother. She’s so unhappy that she calls her estranged mother, Beatriz (Alma Villegas), to come pick her up. And so begins a road story.

In a daze of happiness to be able to spend time with her daughter, Beatriz just keeps driving, and they decide to keep driving until they reach Wyoming, a long-time dream of Olivia’s. Beatriz is now married to a very-accomodating Manuel (Fernando Cavallo). We learn that the marriage is in a bit of trouble, too. The impromptu trip is a vacation for both mother and daughter.

In a brisk 90-minute production, a spare set by Kristina Hestenes-Stimson allows for a rudimentary sketch of two different houses, a car, projected scenic changes (by Mario Gomez), night skies, and minimal fussy changes. Lighting by Zanna Paulson is key to where the audience should pay attention and to times of day. Sound design by Joshua Blaisdell includes lots of oldies from 1986 to set the tone and bring us up when emotions get low.

Olivia knows very little about her mother. She thinks her mother abandoned her. The trip allows time for her mother’s side of the story and for a reclamation of her Latina heritage. Part of the agreement is that her mom teach her five Spanish words a day, which Beatriz is more than happy to do.

In flashbacks, we learn about Aaron and Beatriz’ relationship and aspects of Aaron’s personality that are very different from the rigid father he appears at the beginning. The revelations are comfortable and unforced. There is time for it to unfold.

The heart of the play is the two females getting to know each other. The men are not deeply written, though they are key enough. Villegas is an animated and joyous picture of Beatriz and works well with Cerris. She is charming and the audience can pretty easily agree that the character she’s playing is younger than she is in real life.

Cerris is a revelation in this role. She’s pretty new to Seattle, having arrived her for Intiman’s Emerging Artist program last year. Her mannerisms on stage are so convincing that you might think she’s a high school student found in great local casting. Her emotions and reactions are a perfect blend of sophistication and naiveté just as any 15 year-old might be.

Olivia’s quest is to figure out who she is, both the Latina side of her and the Jewish side. It’s a quest we all have to go on at some point for ourselves. You’ll find yourself a willing participant in her journey.

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