By Tulis McCall
Miss You Like Hell, now at the The Public’s Newman Theater is an ambitious piece. Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown have created a classic hero’s journey. In a way – and I mean this sincerely – it is like The Wizard of Oz. One person sets off on a quest and along the way she gathers her tribe to support her, to teach her, and, finally, to guide her home.
The good news is that every member of this ensemble is spectacular. From Daphne Ruben-Vega to the people who change the set – there is not a weak link in the bunch. The performers are stellar and the musicians are snake charmers. In addition, the direction of Lear deBessonet is compelling and vibrant, as always.
What is not so compelling or vibrant is the story and the music. Not to me. I may be in a serious minority here. On the night I attended, there was many a teary-eyed person at the end of the evening. This is, after all, the story of a mother and daughter fighting like hell to claim one another again. I submit it was the performers’ mastery that charmed the audience. The story has holes the size of craters.
The setting is “The late Obama Years” (The mere mention of the name Obama makes me choke up.) Beatriz (Daphne Ruben-Vega) has driven cross-country from L.A. to Philadelphia to invite her grubby, unkempt, and wonderful teenage daughter Olivia (Gizel Jiménez) to drive back to L.A. with her. Why? Because. No problem. It is 4 AM when Beatriz shows up. Olivia take off without a second thought. A quick text to papa and they are gone.
School vacation I guess.
We soon learn that Olivia has a blog on which she declared her mother dead so that people would stop asking her about Beatriz. Beatriz doesn’t mind because she got a kick ass eulogy. We also learn that Beatriz is going back to L.a. to face a deportation hearing on account of a marijuana situation she got into in South Dakota. Olivia knows nothing of this. Until she does. Until Beatriz tells her that it might help if Olivia would testify at the trial as more or less a character witness. Oops.
Just to clarify here – Beatriz wants her daughter, who she has not seen in 4 years, and who she only saw on weekends prior to that, to testify on her behalf. Check.
What stops Olivia from heading back to Philadelphia are her blog’s readers. The readers are greeted as Castaways and many of them write in with their own memories of their parents. It is a great tool that lets us into Olivia as well as her social scene. One of the readers, Pearl (Latoya Edwards) Pearl has a map that her mother annotated with all the places, not to which she travels, but in which she had gotten lost. Pearl is working in Yellowstone Park. Come on ahead, she commiserates. I am a pit stop on your way to L.A. I have been disappointed too. But I will meet you and your mom. Come on ahead.
Onward – to Yellowstone. On they way they meet up with Mo (Michael Mulheren) and Higgins (David Patrick Kelly), two former high school friends who finally crawled out from under a rock and admitted they loved one another. Now they are retired and traveling the country to get married in each state. Illegal, but a helluva lot of fun. Beatriz and Olivia officiate an informal ceremony in a parking lot and take off.
Next up in the Onward Journey: Mother and Daughter get pulled over for a missing tail light that results in a “Hands behind your back” situation because Beatriz is driving without a license. Did I mention she has no documentation at all? Off to jail, but the cavalry arrive in the form of Mo and Higgins and a well intended fax from the owner who loaned the truck to Beatriz.
Onward to Yellowstone again, but not without more exposition of how these two lionesses came to be in this situation. Their hearts are thawing, but there is still ground to cover. How to fix this mess? Deportation hangs over their heads.
In South Dakota they take a little detour to get the pot conviction erased. No deal. But a particularly funny and poignant scene. In the parking lot they meet Manual who is selling Tamales from his deceased wife’s recipe. They offer him a job as chauffeur, and the tribe increases as they move further down the Yellow Brick Road. An accident relieves them of their truck.
While in Yellowstone they are greeted and educated by Pearl, who tells them of the black solders who cared for this place and now everyone reveres it as property of the nation. There is an impromptu moot court followed by some serious down home dancing and bonding. By the time this is over, Olivia is willing to testify. She will say (or in this case sing) whatever she has to so that her mother can stay. This Lioness does not want to let Mama go again.
Onward: Miguel fades out as easily as he faded in. No harm no foul. He just disappears.
In Los Angeles things do not turn out well. But weeks later Olivia tells her pack of readers that she is now part of the community that gathers in San Diego to greet their loved ones on the other side of the fence in Tijuana every Sunday. She has no plans other than to be there to see her mother every week. She has money raised by her readers, but no home, no job, no sign of dad, and no anything else.
Now, I get that this is an allegory. But then again it is not. The threat of deportation hangs over Beatriz is real, but it is mixed in with so many other people, places and things that it is difficult to maintain focus. Which is too bad because all of this ha happening as we speak. That this story is about the two women is never in question. As they fill in the missing pieces of their relationship they become fully formed, intriguing individuals. Again, however, there is one distraction after another to the extent that the story’s path becomes murky. The music is sincere but not much more. After awhile the numbers sound the same, and they do little to further the plot. The voices are spectacular, as I have said, so the pleasure comes in hearing these performers sing, which they do without reservation. I swear Rubin-Vega could take a mouthful of broken glass and spit out a dahlia. Jiménez has a set of pipes that blasts through the ceiling and flies off into the starry might. Bravo to them. Bravo to all of them.
One directorial note – and I have said this many times about the Public – there are audience members flanking the stage who see more of the performers’ butts than their faces. How does this keep happening?
The sincerity and dynamism if Miss You Like Hell is packed tight into this small troop and the musicians who accompany them. They explode onstage. You will not soon forget these performers or the characters you meet, but you will be hard pressed to remember the details of this story. This very important story.
And that, folks, you may consider the Minority Report.
MISS YOU LIKE HELL – Book & Lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes; Music & Lyrics by Erin McKeown; Choreography by Danny Medford; Directed by Lear deBessonet
WITH Marinda Anderson, Danny Bolero, Andrew Cristi, Latoya Edwards, Shawna M. Hamic, Marcus Paul James, Gizel Jiménez, David Patrick Kelly, Michael Mulheren, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Martin Sola
Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design by Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau; Sound Design by Jessica Paz
Public Theater, Oskar Eustis Artistic Director and Patrick WIllingham, Executive DIrector, Presents MISS YOU LIKE HELL. Tickets can be accessed now by calling (212) 967-7555, or ww.publictheater.org, or in person at 425 Lafayette Street. Through Sunday, May 6. The performance schedule is Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. (There is no 8:00 p.m. performance on Sunday, April 22).