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by Quiara Alegria Hudes (Regional Premiere)

Kitchen Dog Theater

Director - Tina Parker
Scenic Designer - Cindy Ernst
Lighting Designer - Lisa Miller
Costume Designer - Korey Kent
Sound Designer - John M. Flores
Original Music - Max Hartman
Props Designer - Leah Spillman


Olivia - Allie Donnelly
Beatriz/Janet - Christina Vela
Aaron/Joe/Attendant/Reader 2 - Ashley Wood
Manuel/Tamal Seller/Uemura/Reader 1- Christopher Carlos

Reviewed Performance: 11/11/2011

Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Two time Pulitzer Prize nominee and Tony Award nominee for the musical In the Heights, Quiara Alegria Hudes has drawn a touching and engrossing portrait of two women, using autobiographical material and a familiar literary form, the "trip" or "quest" ? bonding while the highway miles roll by. While the opening monologue by Olivia, the daughter, about pickpockets doesn't seem to pay off (does it somehow relate to the Tamal Seller we meet later, or what we hang on to in life?), and other structural elements seem forced or arbitrary, this production is still lifted above the ordinary by the performances of the two
leading ladies, and the able support of the two gentlemen who round out the cast.

An estranged Cuban mother gets a desperate call from the 15-year-old daughter she has barely spoken to in eight years, and immediately sets out to kidnap her from the Jewish custodial father and stepmother. The girl has been throwing up and is sick so the mother "rescues" her and they take off on a cross-country trip from Philadelphia to Wyoming. Along the way, secrets are shared, lessons are taught and learned, and a connection is formed that was not there before.

This visualization of the journey the characters must take towards each other is set forth in 26 scenes during an uninterrupted 95 minutes or so. There are cleverly done scenes in a car and plenty of metaphors and symbols scattered along this highway: references to writing - Olivia keeps a blog-like journal, Beatriz, the mother, encourages her to write down her hurts and even names on pieces of paper, and then toss them out the window instead of dwelling on them.

Two men are shown several times reading newspaper-like publications that may be Olivia's journals. I'm not sure I know what the writing references are all about, but they give us a chance to get inside Olivia's head and her point of view.

Other recurring images are the inordinate number of home and motel bedroom scenes with various bed coverings and the two literal mountain top experiences, one about a Japanese mountain climber and one between Olivia and Beatriz. These are all interesting side roads to contemplate even if some may seem like detours.

Another question I have about the script is why the girl phones the mother who has essentially abandoned her (even if she wasn't given custody) and why that mother hurries off to her aid in the middle of the night. However, that call ceases to be of any importance except as a device to get them together as we get caught up in the relationship of these two women and their journey toward reconciliation.

As Beatriz, Christina Vela is, as usual, a marvel. A consummate actress, she imbues the character with everything from fire, yelling "What, you've never seen a crazy Cuban b***h before?" to the deeply felt response to the story the Tamal Seller shares of the making of his wares by his wife. To watch her linger just a split second as she looks at her daughter with love, the subtle play of emotions that ripple across her face throughout the evening, is such a delight that we believe utterly in this person. The intuitive details this actress
brings to the role round out a living, breathing entity.

Allie Donnelly, a junior at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, more than holds her own with the years of experience brought to the stage by the other actors. She's strong and bold when she ought to be and vulnerable and needy when that's called for. She listens and is "present" in the best sense of the word in her many scenes. Audiences want to relax and feel they are in confident and capable hands, and she never disappoints. The only slight quibble I have with her performance is the speed with which she writes in her
journal - no one writes that quickly! All in all, it's a wonderful professional debut.

Ashley Wood and Christopher Carlos play the men in the women's lives. Mr. Wood, as the ex-husband, portrays a man caught between what he should be doing and the out-of- his-control situation with his new wife, Olivia's stepmother. While we may not admire the character we can't help but admire Mr. Wood's talent. As the Attendant, he's funny and spot-on and I can't think of a time when I've ever been less than impressed with Mr. Wood's work. Mr. Carlos plays the current man in Beatriz's life, and like Mr. Wood's character, his is also not the strongest masculine figure. Ms. Hudes makes no bones about this play being built around the women and their strengths. Mr. Carlos' monologue as the blind Tamal Seller is a thing of beauty. Written as a set piece, he delivers it with great skill and passion. As he tells of his wife making the tamales, we smell the spices and see the process. Monologues made up of lists are notoriously difficult to deliver well and he does it with terrific assurance.

I love the ingenious set by Cindy Ernst. I think it works so well for the play - the colors, the spaces, the surprises, the three screens above the set acting as a cyc, reflecting moods ? all the elements come together to create a perfect environment for a multi-scene show. It is a playground in every sense of the word! The lighting by Lisa Miller is subtle when it needs to be, and yet not afraid to make a dramatic point when necessary. Likewise the sound design by John Flores, which incorporates original music by Max Hartman, supports the play
rather than drawing attention to itself with its cleverness or inappropriateness. The costumes by Korey Kent also support and amplify our understanding of the characters and make statements about who they are in exactly the right way.

Tina Parker has done her usual fine job as director of this production, culling performances of depth and poignancy from her cast. She also moves them around all the wonderful spaces the set provides, and yet it never looks forced or unmotivated. I wish the scene changes could be quicker, but perhaps that will improve with continued running of the show. If, as is supposed to be the case, this show is the vision of the director in supporting the playwright's intention, then I feel like Ms Parker has accomplished her goal. Without
anything feeling imposed on it, 26 Miles flows effortlessly through the many scenes, taking us on a journey we are eager to be a part of. The flaws and inconsistencies in the script are minimized by the wonderfully committed performances of the cast, ably supported by the artistic and technical crews.

This is one road trip you don't want to miss.

Kitchen Dog Theater, Heldt/Hall Theater
The McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC)
3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, TX, 75204

Runs through Saturday, December 10th

Performances are Thursdays - Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. The performance on Saturday, December 3 will start at 8:30 pm.

Additional performances are on Wednesdays, Nov. 30 & Dec. 7 at 8:00pm. No performance on Thanksgiving night, November 24th.

Tickets are $15 - $25 for adults and $10 - $20 for MAC, STAGE, KERA, DART, ARTSCARD, TCG members, students & senior citizens.

Pay-What-You-Can specials, available to the first 25 patrons, are on Wednesdays (Nov. 30th and Dec. 7th) and all Thursdays.

Special group rates are also available.

There will also be a special "Feeding Frenzy Friday"