Florida Weekly Review: On the road with Mom: ’26 Miles’ at Gulfshore Playhouse

Everyone’s longing for something.

For all of us, it’s the need for human connection.

For 15-year-old Olivia (McKenzie Salvatierra-Custin) in “26 Miles,” it’s the need for family, for her mother’s love and guidance. She has a need to express herself, which she does, through creating and writing zines. But she also has an unrecognized need to connect with the Cuban side of her heritage.

For the past nine years, Olivia has been living with her Anglo Dad, Aaron (Danny Bernardy), and his new wife Deborah, the epitome of an evil stepmother. Deborah doesn’t want anything to do with Olivia; she’s been trying, unsuccessfully, to conceive a baby of her own. As an audience, we never get to meet Deborah; we only learn about her through others.

When Olivia’s deathly ill one night, she calls her mother, who comes immediately and rescues her.

Beatriz (Iliana Guibert) is a force to be reckoned with. She possesses a fierce mother’s love that stands in stark contrast with Aaron’s passivity. She may not always make the right decisions, but her heart’s in the right place. And she would fight the world to protect her daughter, even though she lost custody of her years ago. 

Guibert, a dynamic actor, provides much of the play’s humor and spark.

Mother and daughter wind up going on an unexpected road trip from Philadelphia to Wyoming, with secrets learned along the way. As any parent knows, spending time with a teen in a car is the best way to have conversations, especially difficult ones. And, as this play is set in 1986, there are thankfully no cellphones, tablets or video screens to hide behind; the two are forced to interact and have conversations.

Salvatierra-Custin is believable and endearing as a 15-year-old wise beyond her years but vulnerable. We’re privy to her thoughts via her journal entries and letters from the editor she writes for her zines; they are interspersed throughout the show. She writes of explorers of the world: Lewis and Clark, Jack Kerouac and Naomi Uemura, the first person to reach the North Pole alone.

Guibert and Salvatierra-Custin have great chemistry together. Throughout, Ruben Flores (as Manuel, Beatriz’s husband) and Bernardy, as the ex-husband/ dad, make appearances and play a variety of supporting roles. Bernardy, as an Anglo dad, exudes nerdiness and suburbia; you can picture him making Dad jokes. Flores shines as Manuel and a Peruvian tamal seller. His description of his wife making tamales is sheer poetry.

But this is basically Beatriz and Olivia’s story, and Laura Moreno has directed it with tenderness and wisdom.

The playwright, Pulitzer Prize-winning Quiara Alegria Hudes, also wrote the book for “In the Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first musical. In contrast to that large, heavily-populated show, “26 Miles” is quieter, more intimate, with short scenes that build. (Hudes, who describes herself as being half Puerto Rican, half-Jewish, also wrote a memoir about her childhood and exploring her dual identity: “My Broken Language.”)

Re-creating a cross-county car trip onstage could be challenging, but this cast and crew make everyday items do double duty (a watering can for a gas pump, a landline house phone for a public phone booth, what looks like a needlepoint hoop for a steering wheel.)

Britton Mauk’s set is incredibly clever, consisting of two households, one on either side of the stage, bisected with a staircase. The walls on either side are moveable, sliding in and out. With their earth tones and asymmetrical tops they echo the jagged tops of mountain peaks and the rugged landscape of the west. Jose Santiago’s lighting gives us blue Wyoming skies and night stars, and Tracy Dorman’s costumes reflect the mid-’80s, especially Beatriz’s band T-shirts.

The sound design (Sean Ramos) helps create a sense of place, especially the thunder of buffalo hooves, but the between scenes music was a tad too loud. It jarred, in comparison to the scenes.

I loved the click-clack of Olivia’s manual typewriter, but was confused how she could type so much while we only heard a minimal number of keystrokes. And — this is nit-picky too — I wondered why Aaron kept changing the phone from ear to ear while speaking on it; it seemed unnatural and overly theatrical.

This one-act, 90-minute work is part of the second season of ¡Arte Viva!, a celebration of Hispanic art and culture in the Naples/Marco Island/Everglades area.

“26 Miles” is a play with much heart and attitude; you will love taking this journey with Beatriz and Olivia.

Make a Donation Today

You play a vital role. By supporting Gulfshore Playhouse, you are transforming a region and transforming lives.