Stage directions don’t typically play a role in reviews, but a few are memorable for the images they set up. “Exit, pursued by a Bear” precedes the gory demise of old Antigonus in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. “They do not move,” caps the final exchange between Vladimir (“Well? Shall we go?”) and Estragon (“Yes, let’s go”) as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot fades to black.
I thought of them when a moment passed with ineffable poignance in Hilary Bettis’ play, 72 Miles to Go…, having its world premiere at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre. The direction comes about midway through this moving and timely drama. “Billy holds the phone to his heart,” the note reads in the script, “quietly dancing around the room.” Which is exactly what we see on the stage: Celebrating their anniversary, though they haven’t seen one another in two years, Billy and Anita prepare a meal over speaker phones and exchange intimacies. (“I miss touch,” Anita confesses, “I miss hands. Rough skin … fingers … I think a person dies inside without touch.”)
Then, in her room 72 miles away, she puts on Édith Piaf singing “La Vie en Rose” in the background. We hear it only through Billy’s tiny phone speaker. Over the music, Anita commands him to get up. She says, “We are in Paris. On a bridge with a view of the Eiffel Tower. … Ask me to dance.” When he does, she replies, “Okay. I’ll dance with you. Hold me close.”
“Billy holds the phone to his heart, quietly dancing around the room.”
The 72 miles separating U.S. citizen Billy (Triney Sandoval), a Unitarian Church minister, and his Mexican wife Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez) is the between from Tucson, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. Their younger children, Eva (Jacqueline Guillen), starting her senior year in high school, and Aaron (Tyler Alvarez), nervously beginning eighth grade, as well as Anita’s son Christian (Bobby Moreno), live with Billy.
Anita has been deported, and not for the first time. Christian, whose unemployability due to lack of papers has led to an itinerant life full of frustration and rage, is hoping that DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, will resolve his status. Similarly, Anita (heard but never seen) is awaiting approval of a permit that will allow her to re-join her family. She is biding her time in a squalid one-room flat, the particulars of which she takes pains to hide from the family.
Given the worsening political climate during the play’s eight-year span from 2008 to 2016, the forecast isn’t sunny for either of them. The phone becomes the familial lifeline. Anita and Christian are Dreamers in an increasingly dark and perilous night, when flashing red lights and an approaching siren can lead to crippling, unsettling panic. And fury. And a ruinous depletion of hope, as a mere 72 miles becomes over time an impassable distance.
Bettis has had several years of support as her play morphed from personal journey to fully formed drama. She has smartly drafted a heart-breaking tale without abandoning at least a glimmer of the humor that keeps this family going. Billy freestyles terrible jokes with rapper speed, and Christian seems destined to assume his mantel, despite the friction between father and stepson. The paranoia-induced panic attacks are leavened with squalls about teen sex, frog dissecting and the consequences of an all-mayo diet.
All of which is to say that 72 Miles to Go… is a promising writer’s good and timely play, staged by the veteran Jo Bonney with a light hand on the tiller and a fine, committed cast. I was with it all the way, even when Bettis plucks too hard on the heartstrings and lines go clunk as surely as Billy’s punchlines – and even if Rachel Hauk’s set and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting create some uncharacteristic confusion when the location shifts. (The clothes, by Emilio Sosa, are terrific.) It’s heartening to see the Roundabout emerging as one of the city’s most fecund sources of new work and emerging artists. That’s exactly right.