Among the most widely debated topics in our country, not just during this current primary election season but over the past decade, are the laws and politicized views on immigration. In 72 Miles to Go, making its premiere with Roundabout Theatre Company, playwright Hilary Bettis examines the divisive hot-button issue from the personal human perspective of a Mexican-American family trying to stay together after Anita, their undocumented wife and mother, has been deported back to Nogales from her established life in the US, and her first son Christian – also born in Mexico, raised in America, and now an adult with a wife and kids of his own – fears that he will be, too.
Framed in the device of Billy – the good-natured husband, father, step-father, US native, and Unitarian preacher – delivering a direct-address farewell sermon to his congregation in Tucson, Arizona, the episodic structure of the memory play at first evokes the style of a soap opera or a sit-com, with the dates of his re-enacted back-story recollections of the past ten years projected on the rear wall and his speech peppered with silly puns and one-liners to keep everyone in good spirits (his pasta joke is particularly clever). But as the decade-long saga continues, we get to know each member of the family, to care about all of them, to become invested in their struggles, and to hope for a positive outcome that will reunite them and fulfill their American dream of a better life.
Director Jo Bonney emphasizes the relatable normalcy of the characters’ working-class home, every-day life, and family dynamics. We see their familiar furnishings (set design by Rachel Hauck) and clothing (costumes by Emilio Sosa), the food they eat (Billy’s favorite is tuna and noodles, with too much mayo and salt), the events they celebrate (Christmas; the parents’ wedding anniversary; daughter Eva’s high-school graduation as class valedictorian; youngest son Aaron’s return from the Iraq War), and the conversations and interactions they have.
But in the case of Anita, she’s heard via cell phone, or mentioned by a family member following a rare brief visit with her in Nogales, 72 miles away, across the Mexican border. Consequently, we also see the distress and anxiety they feel, the procedures they follow and attempts they make to try to gain documented status and re-entry into the US, and, especially, the love and commitment they share and the sacrifices they willingly make for each other, with emotions and connections that are no different than those of any other American family, regardless of where they came from or what their ethnicity.
The congenial cast of five brings the characters to life with growing credibility, intimacy, and a profound sense of humanity, in well-rounded portrayals that become increasingly heartfelt and mature as the years go by. Though we mostly get to know Anita through repeated phone calls, we can hear the wifely and maternal love, duty, and devotion in her voice, in both Spanish and English, as delivered beautifully by Maria Elena Ramirez. Jacqueline Guillén, as the daughter Eva, captures the character-defining sense of responsibility of the teenager, who excels at school, but puts her own promising future on hold to serve as a substitute mother for the younger brother who needs her, and a buffer between her estranged older brother and father, while quietly lamenting the absence of her mom and missing her at the milestones of her young life. In the roles of Christian and Aaron, Bobby Moreno and Tyler Alvarez exhibit their growing pains and worries, along with their fraternal teasing and affection, as they reach adulthood and are forced to deal with monumental issues no one should have to face. And Broadway veteran Triney Sandoval is thoroughly irresistible as Billy, who does his best to maintain his family and his sense of humor, despite all of the hardships they’ve endured, finding the joy in the countless moments of daily life.
Roundabout’s timely and moving production of 72 Miles to Go is a show that creeps up on you slowly but surely, with an important message, people you’ll like and be concerned about, and an uncertain ending that packs an emotional punch for anyone who has a heart and everyone who believes that “el amor no tiene fronteras” (love has no borders). Be sure to see it, and be sure to bring your tissues.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, without intermission.
72 Miles to Go plays through Sunday, May 3, 2020, at Roundabout Theatre Company, performing at the Laura Pels Theatre – 111 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 719-1300, or purchase them online.