InterAct’s ‘72 Miles to Go...’ tells an important story about immigration

Philadelphia Inquirer Review on June 17, 2022, by Julia M. Klein

At the heart of Hilary Bettis’ 72 Miles to Go … is a story at once human and political. Set in Tucson, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, between 2008 and 2016, the play dramatizes the wrenching dilemmas that flow from this country’s immigration policies and the desire of migrants for a better life.

Bettis boasts writing credits that include FX’s The Americans and Hulu’s The Dropout. And 72 Miles, which premiered at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company in 2020, has memorable characters and situations.

But InterAct Theatre Company’s 95-minute staging, with an all-Latinx cast codirected by Erlina Ortez and the theater’s producing artistic director, Seth Rozin, can’t overcome the play’s episodic structure. And it has faults of its own, often seeming overly restrained and slow-moving.

The main conflict in the play is the enforced separation of Anita (Anjoli Santiago) from her American husband, Billy (J Hernandez). Years ago, Billy, a Unitarian minister, rescued Anita and her young son, Christian (Frank Jimenez), when they illegally crossed the border. The two adults fell in love and were married. But she remained undocumented and was subsequently deported. Now and again, she tries to sneak over the border to see her family.

That includes her two children with Billy, the compulsively maternal Eva (Lorenza Bernasconi) and the idiosyncratic Aaron (Jerrick Medrano). Christian, though born in Mexico to a Mexican father, was raised believing himself an American citizen. He is embittered and angry, mostly at his father, to learn otherwise. As Anita, primarily present through her voice on the phone, Santiago does an excellent job conveying the character’s warmth and anchoring love for the family she rarely sees. Jimenez is intensely moving as Christian, obliged to pay for his parents’ missteps and this country’s limited compassion. Bernasconi is sympathetic as Eva, a caretaker for her family who desperately misses her absent mother, especially when prom night goes awry. Less successful is Hernandez’s portrayal of Billy. The character is laconic, dryly humorous, helpless around the house, depressed by his marital separation. But Hernandez, holding back, drains the part of too much energy. By contrast, Medrano’s Aaron, with the challenge of aging from boy to man during the play’s eight-year time span, seems wild and over the top. It’s a distracting performance.

The most striking component of Melpomene Katakalos’ set, with its purposely shabby home interiors and a couch doubling as a car, is a colorful mural backdrop. Evoking the border setting and the show’s themes, it features a full-length portrait of a woman, possibly the Virgin Mary; a purple mountain; half a butterfly; a couple of Spanish sayings, and abundant graffiti. Also worth noting is Shannon Zura’s sound design, which includes Edith Piaf’s romantic “La Vie en Rose,” “Feliz Navidad,” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas,” a country tune popularized by George Strait.

In the production notes for her script, Bettis writes: “Like a piece of music, this play only works when the rhythm is played. If it’s too slow, it loses its emotional engine. If it’s too fast, it loses its meaning.” InterAct’s staging needs more energy and speed.