Via a quirky blend of biography and fiction, Tony-nominated “In the Heights” book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes’ new play, “26 Miles,” mines a mother/daughter road adventure to extract an array of subtle gems rich in cultural contrasts and transformative events.
Prompted by a suicide attempt that follows an embarrassing high-school lunchroom incident, Olivia (Ana Nogueira), who lives with her Jewish father, Aaron (Kevin Hart), telephones her Cuban mother, Beatriz (Gabriella Cavallero), after an eight-year estrangement. Beatriz promptly vents her pent-up frustration at the shortcomings of her men past (Aaron) and present (Jose Antonio Mercado), grabs Olivia in the middle of the night and heads west in a desperate fury.
Hudes’ layered arc builds on Olivia and Beatriz’s tenuous bonding as the would-be compadres escape the gravity of their Philadelphia-area commitments and share close encounters across the heartland. Olivia’s ambitious journalistic efforts, lightly peppered throughout, provide a thoughtful narrative throughline for the teenager’s irrepressible curiosity and confused sense of identity.
Beatriz and Olivia’s conversations on family, love and the facts of life provide a feminine lens on gender conflict.
The current Denver production, the second installment of a three-stop 2009 rolling world premiere — guaranteed to “26 Miles” as part of the National New Play Network Continued Life Project — benefits from Hudes’ judicious trimming and new ending that followed the March opening at Atlanta’s Alliance Theater. Next up is a November run at the New Theater in Coral Gables, Fla., after which the play will likely be on course for a Gotham run.
Nogueira’s breezy and mercurial Olivia sets a brisk pace, her impulsive choices keeping the still slightly hefty one-act focused and engaging. Cavallero’s deft touch with the street-smart, school-of-hard-knocks Beatriz — flippant Spanish oaths, tongue-in-cheek religious importuning, Cuban nostalgia, motherly exasperation — envelops the proceedings and supports Hudes’ new outcome.
Hart and Mercado artfully elicit empathy to offset the male characters’ infidelities, cluelessness and duplicity.
Pesha Rudnick’s staging, emphatically punctuated with Olivia’s journalistic summary, maintains the full-circle resolution of classic comedy while satisfying the character-driven imperatives.
The director mixes and matches the daunting 26 scenes with the multifaceted aspects of Michael R. Duran’s set, turning interior walls and stairways in Pennsylvania into Western sunsets and hillsides in Yellowstone, leveraging Dick Devin’s broad lighting palette and Brian Freeland’s formidable musical vocabulary as visual and audible threads in this cross-country, multicultural, intergenerational journey.