Appeared in the Broad Street Review on June 20, 2022, by Kristen Bowen
“How do you live your life without your children?” a son and young father asks his mother, whom he hasn’t seen for eight years. The question comes late in 72 Miles to Go… by Hilary Bettis, which makes its Philadelphia premiere at InterAct Theatre Company under the direction of Erlina Ortiz and Seth Rozin. But it echoes throughout this heartbreaking and urgent drama that chronicles the resilience and devastation of a family torn apart by the United States’ punitive immigration laws.
The 72 miles of the title is the distance between Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico. Anita has been deported to Mexico, leaving behind husband Billy and teenage children Christian, Eva, and Aaron, in Tucson. Now she is a disembodied voice on a phone, promising to be home by Eva’s high school graduation. Billy strives to keep his children’s hope alive and bring his wife home, as the children struggle to move on with their lives knowing that their mother is missing key parts of them. As they pine for Anita they also fear for Christian, who arrived in the United States from Mexico as an infant and, like his mother, is undocumented.
The only home they know
Bettis, an accomplished television writer, whose work includes FX’s The Americans and Hulu’s The Dropout, personalizes the political as we watch this family living their daily lives on the knife’s edge, particularly Christian: as he grows older, marrying and having children of his own, he has more to lose. The fact that he might be sent back to a country he has never known as home and whose language he doesn’t speak feels even more frustrating and absurd than his mother’s limbo.
Ortiz and Rozin have assembled an exemplary team to tell this powerful story. A vibrant mural overlooks Melpomene Katakalos’s simple set of kitchen, living room, and car, depicting two sets of mountains at sunrise and in moonlight, covered in graffiti and divided by the Virgin Mary, evoking these two separate places united by a loving mother. Maria Shaplin lights the backdrop beautifully, highlighting the moon shining down on all of them. Shannon Zura’s sound design amplifies Anita’s offstage presence, and Asaki Kuruma’s costumes help tell the story of these teenagers aging into adults.
Love and inhumanity
But the true standouts are the cast, who are the beating heart of this production. J Hernandez is warm, funny, and soulful as Billy. He and Anjoli Santiago as Anita capture the couple’s love, humor, and yearning in a bittersweet celebration of their anniversary over the phone. Santiago, who spends most of the play as a voice on the phone, communicates Anita’s wistfulness for her family. As their children, Lorenza Bernasconi, Jerrick Medrano, and Frank Jimenez craft specific and detailed performances as earnest and rebellious teenagers forced to grow old before their time. Medrano is particularly adroit as the youngest, Aaron: in a heartstopper of a scene in which he and Jimenez fear that the police are at their door, he snaps from a confident young man into a terrified, vulnerable child.
Taking place between 2008 and 2016, 72 Miles to Go… seems to end before Donald Trump wins the presidency, but the sense that things will only get worse hovers over the play. Bettis paints a visceral picture of the lives of the undocumented, and how the effects of the US government’s inhumanity towards them will be felt for years, and generations, to come.