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26 MILES

26 MILES

Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes

Artes de la Rosa Cultural Center for the Arts

Directed by Adam Adolfo
Stage Managed by Oliver Luke
Scenic Design by Oliver Luke
Lighting Design by Juan Gonzalez
Sound Design by Adam Adolfo
Costume Design by Adam Adolfo


CAST

Olivia- Georgia Marshelle Phillips
Beatriz- DeAnna Gonzales
Aaron/Attendant/Reader 2- David Johnson
Manuel/Tamale Seller/Uemura/ Reader 1- Carlos Iruegas


Reviewed Performance: 12/2/2011

Reviewed by Laura L. Watson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

Attending Artes de la Rosa's opening night Fort Worth premiere of Quiara Alegria Hudes' 26 Miles is like jumping on board a high speed rail train to parts unknown- laughing almost the entire time and wiping away tears the rest.

"From the writer of the Tony Award winning musical, In the Heights, comes this tender family comedy about a Jewish American teenager and her estranged Cuban mother who drive cross-country in an '83 Buick Regal, exploring the relationships we have with our parents. 26 Miles reminds us that the best souvenirs on the road of life are the relationships we make along the way" (taken from Artes de la Rosa's promotional materials).

Is 26 Miles in English or Spanish? Both. Is it a Jewish story or a Latino story? Both. Well, is it a comedy or drama? Both. Hudes' writing is notably a mixture of languages, cultures and genres. She weaves the tale of these two women, and all their emotional baggage, with humor and explosive arguments, tears and laughter, and a lot of wisdom too. The storyline may seem improbable to some - a mother taking her daughter, for whom she has no visitation rights, on an extended road trip but once you get to know the characters involved, it is entirely plausible. For me, 90% of a successful production rests on a good text, and 26 Miles is one of my favorite plays because it is ingenious in its simplistic approach and deeply human emotions, told in a non- melodramatic way.

This is also a play that has characters everyone can identify with on some level - Cuban, Jewish, or something else. It is no wonder Hudes has been nominated for not one but two Pulitzer Prizes and a slew of Tony Awards for her work.

Artes de la Rosa produces its shows in the historic Rose Marine Theater on North Main Street in Fort Worth. When one thinks of going to the "theater", this is the type of venue that comes to mind - classic architecture, a raked audience, and a proscenium stage. Comfortably seating 250, it still manages to have an intimate feel, and the magic of the theater permeates the very air we breathe. For this production the normally conceptual and spectacle-driven director Adam Adolfo, along with Oliver Luke as the Scenic Designer, Technical Director, and Stage Manager, opt for simplicity, allowing the story to be simply told utilizing the talent of four very strong actors against a series of sheer white curtains and four white, wooden dining room chairs.

They even go so far as to place the prop table behind these curtains at far upstage center, visible to the audience when the curtains are parted as actors enter and exit.

In the pre-show, red and blue lights by designer Juan Gonzalez are reflecting off and behind these curtains, creating a sea of pinks and purples. The sets and the lights create a simple yet elegantly magical atmosphere even before words are spoken. Throughout the performance the lights change slowly to shift us from scene to scene, and to spot the actors in the far down stage positions where they make phone calls or deliver monologues.

Unfortunately, the "intelligent lights" are very loud as they shift position, even audible over the music and the actors. However this is minor and the lighting design, as with the set, is subtle and supportive of the storytelling.

The preshow music hints that this is set in 1986, and once the play begins, we see this is true, though the costumes are not over the top. It is subtly 1980's. Also, there is a lot of white in the costumes - shades of white and different fabrics with various textures to reveal who the characters are underneath. Splashes of color are thrown into the costumes so as not to overwhelm the audience, such as Beatriz's red shoes and Olivia's black sweat pants. Costumes and sound are both designed by Adam Adolfo.

The play is full of sound effects, most of which signal a shift in scenes, and a healthy dose of 80's music from all genres pumps through the speakers. One sound effect was a bit such though. We don't need to hear what Olivia is doing in the bathroom but we do. Other times, the sound effects are perfectly in sync with the action on the stage, and add the occasional much needed comedic relief, such as a classic "wha-wha-whaaa" for the Japanese mountain climber's untimely end.

Though director Adam Adolfo departs from his normal style, he demonstrates he is very capable of simplistic storytelling, and it never once gets boring or drags in this 90 minute one act with no intermission. The blocking is interesting even though Adolfo only gives his actors the four chairs to create everything from a bed in the hotel room to the car they use on the road trip to Mount McKinley. As mentioned earlier, he goes one step too far in the sound design but otherwise the design elements unite in perfect harmony around the story. No great spectacle, but a great spectacle would detract from the storyline.

Much of the onstage action requires pantomime, and the hours rehearsing is evident during these times as the actors drive, climb mountains, and talk on telephones. All of this places the entire success or downfall of the show squarely on the shoulders of the actors - and they carry this responsibility with ease.

Georgia Marshelle Philips, a college student, plays 15 year old Olivia as wide eyed, self confidant, and as emotionally high strung as a 15 year old should be. Olivia is not a normal 15 year old - she's half Cuban, half Jewish, and has lived with her father with little to no contact with her mother since the age of six. She is also a writer, opening the show with a long monologue that serves as a Letter from the Editor to the readers of her self-published magazine. Philips embodies the entirety of this character, bringing maturity and immaturity into perfect balance.

Though at times the emotions seem a bit forced, especially at the beginning of scenes because there is such a big swing between scenes, Philips eventually slides into a believable performance. After the opening monologue, Philips must turn and become a very sick, vomiting Olivia, and this is her least believable scene. One could chalk it up to opening night adrenaline or that she was directed to perform the scene in this manner, but someone who has vomited 16 times in an hour would not move so quickly and would be more prone to gagging sounds rather than coughing. This scene quickly passes though, and Philips is able to utilize that adrenaline rush to push her later scenes rather than fighting to hold it back.

Above all, Philips acts not just with her body and voice but with her big brown eyes, looking into the eyes of audience members as she addresses them, and into our souls as the tears well in her eyes as she gazes off into the distance. I was seated in the middle of the audience, and it was her eyes that drew me into the performance. Given the heavy subjects the two women discuss, it is easy to forget that 26 Miles is a comedy. Philips has comedic timing well beyond her years and spouts her imperfect Spanish (leaving those who are bilingual in the audience in stitches) with absolute dedication.

Beatriz is played with fiery passion by DeAnna Gonzales. She takes on a thick Cuban accent for this role but never once do her words get lost in the accent. In fact, her performance would have been unbelievable without it - and it is significant that it is an accurate Cuban accent and not a generic Spanish accent. One pitfall of her performance is that Beatriz yells, and she yells a lot. For example, in the first scene she yells at Manuel and then gets excited about Olivia's phone call, and all this yelling leaves her very little room to grow in intensity for the truly explosive outbursts. However, one can interpret that Beatriz is always fervent, from small things to big things.

But Gonzales balances the yelling with the quieter moments, and is above all an active listener to those on stage with her. She is believable as the heartsick mother who will move heaven and earth for those she loves, and she delivers the witty one-liners with absolute seriousness. "You are my daughter. You have a spiritual a**!"

David Johnson along with Carlos Ireugas, though having multiple minor roles, hold their ground alongside the more dominant characters, and are in no way overshadowed. This was why the standing ovation on opening night began when Iruegas and Johnson took their bows and only grew in intensity when the entire cast came together for the final bows. Johnson is first seen as Reader 2 and is joyful and almost childlike in his all white stereotypical housepainter's outfit. He does a complete 180 degree turn when in the next scene he is Aaron, Olivia's low-key and sad father.

As Aaron, we see his confliction between loving his daughter and wanting to take care of her, and the need to keep the peace with his current wife Deborah. We also learn later on that Aaron was once a pot-smoking, motorcycle riding hippie who had become a dull, boring and responsible adult, and he seems to be mourning all he has lost in his life. Later Johnson returns as a gas station attendant in Ohio, showing us he has yet a third layer to his acting skills. In all three roles Johnson uses his commanding voice and his stoic yet at the same time deeply expressive facial expressions to convey what is truly happening inside his character. Whatever is required of him, he delivers without inhibition and with total commitment to both the text and his blocking. He along with Carlos Ireugas hold their ground alongside the more dominant characters they are playing opposite and are in no way overshadowed.

Iruegas as Reader 1 is also very childlike, and exudes an enthusiasm that made the audience laugh and clap with joy. Then, for Beatriz's husband Manuel, he changes into a man full of conspiracy theories who loves his wife but is most definitely carrying a dark secret. His shining moment is as the Tamale Seller, who gives a lengthy monologue about how his wife makes the tamales. A few scenes later Iruegas flexes his comedic muscles as the mountain climber Uemura, climbing upon the four chairs placed back to back while wearing a huge white snow suit. He has no lines but must react to everything Olivia says about him, up to and including his death upon Mount McKinley. The audience roared with laughter at his facial expressions and less than enthusiastic thumbs up to the circling helicopter.

When the train comes to a final stop, the audience cannot help but feel the same exhaustive exhilaration the characters do. Artes de la Rosa's 26 Miles is a journey that should not be missed.

26 MILES
Artes de la Rosa
at the Rose Marine Theater, 1440 North Main St, Ft Worth, 76164
Runs through December 18th

Performances are Friday & Saturday @ 7:30pm, Sunday matinee @ 2:30pm.

Tickets are $18 general admission and $12 for students/seniors.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.rosemarinetheater.com or by calling (817) 624-8333.
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