Around the midpoint of Hilary Bettis’s72 Miles to Go… comes a truly remarkable scene. To set the stage: Bettis’s play follows a Mexican-American family in Tucson adjusting to life without matriarch Anita, who has been deported to Nogales, Mexico, just 72 miles away. As the play begins, in 2008, the family is hopeful for Anita’s imminent return. But as the years drag on and laws only grow harsher, husband Billy and their three children try to press forward without her. Adjustment proves a struggle.
It also takes some time for us, as an audience, to adjust to Bettis’s central device: the hanging presence of a character who is never in the room. At first you really believe that Anita may walk through the door any moment. We’re still in the pre-Trump years, right–weren’t the laws better? They were not: a necessary political point that Bettis has smartly baked into the plot. As we accept how few options this family has available to them, we are also reminded that U.S. immigration law was a labyrinthian nightmare well before this president came along.
In an opening monologue, Billy (Triney Sandoval), who is a pastor, speaks to his congregation on the beauty of “small everyday moments that we take for granted.” Bettis is also giving us her mission statement. 72 Miles is not action-packed, but instead built of little in-between moments. The family’s big turning points are mostly offstage, as months or years pass between scenes. What we see instead are fragments of everyday life.
At first Bettis doesn’t trust this smallness enough. A fight between Billy and his stepson Christian (Bobby Moreno, superb as ever) comes too early in the play, before we have context on why they are yelling at each other. Most of the shouting conflicts Bettis introduces feel strained. They all come out of Billy’s failures as a father, which never feel fully fleshed out. And Billy spends years lying to his children about the likelihood of their mother’s return, which feels more like a dramatic contrivance than anything else.
Bettis is on much firmer ground in those little moments, the small and everyday stuff. Once 72 Miles really settles into that groove (and once we’re on its wavelength), it starts to work. Christian and his stepbrother Aaron (Tyler Alvarez) talking about girls over a beer; the fractured family gathering for Christmas, mostly for their mother’s sake; the kids doing mock-impressions of themselves as outer space “aliens.” Or in a scarier moment, Christian’s overwhelming terror when police lights outside the window are misconstrued as a possible threat.
That scene is not the remarkable one I referenced earlier, but it is worth focusing on. Christian’s reaction to the red and blue lights is instinctual terror. Even once he knows there isn’t a threat, Christian breaks down in tears at the fear that overtook him. His siblings sit by him, and hug him tightly. The constant, needless fear under which the undocumented live remains, of course, present–but mostly it’s a moment of fractured family holding each other close.
The really, really remarkable scene is Billy’s anniversary dinner with his wife. It’s a simple meal–he cooks tuna and noodles, she eats Spaghetti-Os. Their phones sit before them. Hearing only each other’s voices, the two imagine themselves in Paris, on a bridge with a view of the Eiffel Tower. Anita asks Billy to dance. He holds his flip phone up like it’s his faraway wife, and dances with it.
At moments like this one, Bettis’s unsentimental voice and Jo Bonney’s quiet, melancholy production find a special kind of balance. A scene that could be overplayed instead finds the sweetness without sacrificing honesty. There is no heartstring tugging, just reality.
I won’t strain to connect this scene to our current moment, when we’re struggling to keep connections while trapped in our homes. 72 Miles is specifically a story of the immigrant experience. I’ll only say that in recent days, that wonderful stage image has popped into my head many times: a man home alone, dancing with his cellphone.
Due to the coronavirus outbreak and the shutdown of Off-Broadway, this production has unfortunately suspended its performances until at least April 12 at the time of publication.