THEATER: ‘Miles’ of fascinating stories

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Sitting in a theater and wishing you were in your car is probably not an artistic director’s fondest dream. However, road-trip wanderlust is precisely what Quiara Alegria Hudes’ delightful new work, “26 Miles,” evokes. Although you are not in the driver’s seat, this picaresque play, sensitively directed at Round House Theatre by KJ Sanchez, is a journey worth taking.

Miss Hudes, Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize nominee for the Broadway smash musical “In the Heights,” does not veer too far off the well-trodden path of the cross-country road trip. The classic scenario in “26 Miles” involves Olivia (Laura C. Harris), a 15-year-old girl from a small town in Pennsylvania who is smart and analytical and therefore suffering greatly during adolescence, and her estranged mother, Beatriz (Zabryna Guevara), a Cuban-American who lost custody in a bitter battle with her ex (Michael Frederic).

Shunted aside in an unhappy household — Olivia’s father is remarried to a shrew — Olivia reaches out to her mother, who promptly drives over and kidnaps her. The pair set out for Yellowstone, a place Olivia has idealized since seeing a photo of buffalo running in the snow in an issue of National Geographic. Along the way, mother and daughter discover what they have in common — suicide attempts and having sex way too young, among other revelations — and Olivia realizes she “wears the skin” of her Cubano mother. Beatriz sees how fiercely she loves her daughter and how much they need each other.

This finding-yourself-on-the-lost-highway scenario is hardly new, but Miss Hudes invigorates the genre with characters that are prickly, complicated and completely engrossing, as well as language that is frequently juicily poetic. Olivia lives entirely in her head — her body bivouacked in baggy sweatpants and T-shirts, but she is still exploited by boys who use her insecurities to their advantage. Her mind, though, is a wonderful place to visit, ablaze with ideas, connections and big dreams.

Beatriz, in contrast, is all body and outward sensation. Sexy and proud in her body, Beatriz never met an emotion she didn’t like. More complex than the spitfire Latina stereotype, Beatriz longs for her 12-year-old self — the limitless girl she was rather than the disappointed woman she has become.

You don’t get as much of a handle on the male characters, although the eccentricities and tenderness of Beatriz’s husband, Manuel (Triney Sandoval) are a treat. The problematic character is Olivia’s father, who comes off as a gentle schlub, but when he palms her off on Beatriz without batting an eye, his blitheness seems passive-aggressive and cruel. What kind of dad gives up his daughter via a motel-room long-distance phone call?

The close-knit quality of “26 Miles” might be better served in a theater more intimate than Round House. However, the actors and director do a masterful job of conjuring up that feeling of being on the road — windows down and fast-food cups littering the front seat, conversations that seem deeper and richer in the darkness and sanctity of the inside of a car and the freedom that seems as endless as the miles of highway stretching before you like a magic carpet.

★★★
WHAT: “26 Miles” by Quiara Alegria Hudes
WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays. Through Nov. 22.
TICKETS: $25 to $60
PHONE: 240/644-1100
WEB SITE: www.roundhousetheatre.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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