THEATER REVIEW: “26 Miles” needs better focus

Years ago, the Four Preps sang about “26 Miles” as the distance to Catalina, “the island of romance” off San Pedro, Calif.

But for 15-year-old Olivia (Hannah Rose Kornfeld), 26 miles is the last lap to the realization of her dream of seeing the buffalo roam in Wyoming.

Olivia’s parents – old Woodstock hippies Beatriz (Cassie Benavidez) and Aaron (Jacob Bruce) – are separated and she has lived for the past eight years in Paoli, a suburb of Philadelphia, with her mostly absent dad and unseen mean stepmom Deborah, who has forbidden her access to the upstairs floors, meaning her father.

Olivia feels abandoned by her voluble mother (who lost both the custody battle and visitation rights) and largely ignored by the father she adores. She is also bullied at school (for unspecified reasons) and suffers some cultural confusion – dad is Jewish, mom Cuban and Catholic.

When we first see the bright teenager, she is vomiting for the 13th time. In between hurling episodes, she’s editing the newsletter she writes and distributes at school. She calls for her father but he doesn’t hear.

Finally, weakened from retching and unable to get Aaron’s attention, she calls mom, who – wanting to escape husband Manuel (Raul Cardona) for a while – scoops her up and takes her off on a road trip. This becomes a meditation on estrangement, the essential loneliness of being, cultural dissonance, abandonment and survival – all while in search of the elusive buffalo.

Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s production of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “26 Miles” plays through Oct. 23 at the 10th Avenue Theatre.

Hudes (who wrote the book for “In The Heights,” named best musical of 2008), has a lyrical turn of mind, and indeed the most affecting part of this play is a long, loving and poetic description by a wandering tamale salesman of his wife’s kitchen creations.

The play is described as a comedy, and it’s probably best just to take it at that, because the serious issues mentioned are not resolved, the promised profundity of Olivia’s opening speech about pickpockets and non-pickpockets never realized.

Kornfeld is charming and heartbreaking as Olivia, who longs for stability and someone to listen to her.

Bruce and Cardona play multiple parts. Bruce does what he can with the puzzling character of Aaron. It’s difficult to believe any father, no matter how emotionally distant, would refuse to answer phone calls from an absent child in the hands of a mother whom he had practically slandered in the custody hearing. But he’s a hoot as a gas station/convenience store attendant.

Cardona doesn’t have much to do as Beatriz’s husband Manuel, but he’s terrific as the aforementioned poetic tamale vendor.

Benavidez shows a lot of charm and spunk as the emotionally all-over-the-map cubana, but her voluble conversational style goes way past screaming into a level of shrieking that wore me out early.

These characters are engaging, but as written they provoke more head-scratching than understanding. A rewrite is in order to give “26 Miles” more focus.

The real star of this show is Marilia Maschion, whose splendid video projection design made the multiple location changes look easy.

The details

“26 Miles” plays through Oct. 23 at the 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 Tenth Ave.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets all (619) 342-7395 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.