On the Road

A mother and daughter find themselves as they travel across the country in Borderlands' charming '26 Miles'

The road-trip movie is a staple of American cinema, and the formula is simple: Throw unusual travel companions into a car; put some high-concept obstacles in their way; and let the comic situations and unlikely bonding commence.

26 Miles, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, gives this cinematic structure a theatrical spin. The play takes two semi-estranged family members, puts them in a car, and sends them all the way from the suburbs of Philadelphia to Yellowstone National Park.

Borderlands Theater is staging the production in the Cabaret Theater at the Temple of Music and Art, a small space. So it's impressive how elegantly the production, directed by Norma Medina, conveys a road trip. Everything's there: cheap motels, gas stations and even Yellowstone National Park.

We begin with Olivia (Kristen Islas), teenage daughter of divorced parents: a Cuban-immigrant mother, and a Jewish-American father. She has a passion for writing, but she also has her troubles; one evening, she starts throwing up. Her father, Aaron (Cliff Madison), tries to be sympathetic, but he's more concerned that she'll upset her stepmother (who remains an important though unseen presence throughout the play).

Desperate for comfort, Olivia calls her mother, Beatriz (Yolanda Corrales). Beatriz is outraged and impulsively comes to collect Olivia. This pickup soon morphs into a spontaneous cross-country trip.

Beatriz lost custody of Olivia years ago, when Olivia chose to live with her father. Naturally, as mother and daughter cross state lines together, they share secrets from the past and the present. It emerges that Beatriz is having problems with her new husband, Manuel (Roberto Garcia), and Olivia is having trouble at school.

The production is fortunate to have two charismatic leads. Islas' Olivia and Corrales' Beatriz are charming, and both actors are excellent at drawing the comedy out of tense moments. However, they are less successful when Olivia and Beatriz need to confront each other more seriously. Whether the characters are arguing about driving or revealing emotional secrets, Islas and Corrales keep the energy level fairly consistent; there isn't enough of a shift when dramatically important moments happen.

It doesn't help that the actors generally remain seated, even during the scenes that don't take place in the car. Given the necessarily cramped blocking, it seems an odd choice to keep the characters off their feet even when it's not required by the script.

Still, much of the staging is inventive. When they are in the car, the actors are in the center of the stage. With the help of only a few props, stage left and stage right undergo a continuous metamorphosis, transforming from buildings in Philadelphia to gas stations and motels on the road.

The back of the stage serves as an imaginative space. When Olivia narrates her writing to the audience, figures from her texts appear behind her, adding an element of fantasy to the otherwise realistic production.

During transitions between scenes, lighting designer Clint Bryson covers the stage in illuminated words, which we soon recognize as Olivia's own writing. This beautiful effect visually telegraphs an important theme of the play: Olivia is trying, through words, to reconcile the inheritance of both her mother and father, to find her own identity and place in the world. Olivia's struggle with words also mirrors the playwright's attempt to convey the complex reality of these characters.

While it's always tricky to call a fictional work autobiographical, 26 Miles does somewhat reflect the background of playwright Hudes, who was born to a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother, and grew up in West Philadelphia. Olivia's efforts to make sense of the world through writing make it easy to see her as a stand-in for the playwright, an earlier version of someone who will grow up to create the play we are currently observing.

Hudes is a rising force on the national theater scene: She was nominated for a Tony for the hit musical In the Heights, and her play Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. 26 Miles, which has already received several productions through the National New Play Network's New Play Fund, is a great fit for Borderlands, a company that sponsors programs for youth while developing and producing diverse plays. The play's young heroine, torn between two backgrounds and beset with the prosaic problems of teenager-hood, is a relatable figure for a wide audience.

Despite some flaws in this production, it's impossible not to be charmed by a play that takes you halfway across America in the company of two smart, complicated women. Even if you've seen an infinite number of road-trip movies, Hudes and Borderlands use theater to re-imagine the road-trip genre in a way that feels fresh and accessible.

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