Although Beatriz does not initially tell Olivia when she shows up with a borrowed pick-up truck in Philadelphia where Olivia lives with her American father (who we never meet), she has an immigration hearing in Los Angeles in one week’s time and hopes her daughter will testify in her behalf. Claiming to be worried about Olivia who posted a failed suicide attempt on her blog Castaways the week before, Beatriz tells her that they need some quality time together after being estranged for the previous four years. During their journey they travel though Ohio, Indiana, South Dakota and Wyoming where Olivia wants to connect with Pearl, a junior ranger who is her most devoted follower online.
Along the way they meet a gay couple getting married in all 50 states, get arrested for a broken brake light, meet Manuel, a Peruvian-born widower and tamales maker, and hook up with Pearl at her job in Yellowstone. Both Beatriz and Olivia put in calls to her lawyer back in L.A. Although we learn a great deal about what it is like to be undocumented and the risks such people run particularly in the current climate, the episodes seem random and tangential. The attractive and pleasant score by McKeown and Hudes is made up of folk-rock and country western songs. Unfortunately, the majority of them are about memories of the past and very few of them have much weight. None of them feel integrated into the plot.
Director Lear deBessonet’s minimalist production uses a set design by Riccardo Hernandez which uses a rectangular blue/purple playing area with the audience sitting on three sides, two stools to represent the inside of the car, and eight chairs for the ensemble who are on stage throughout the story and play multiple roles. Although the lighting by Tyler Micoleau occasionally offers some color on a skyscape on the back wall, Miss You Like Hell is devoid of atmosphere and the very emptiness of the stage undercuts the cluttered relationship between Beatriz and Olivia. Emilio Sosa’s costumes are rather generic and don’t much define the characters but telegraph them instead.
What makes the storytelling riveting are the performances by the talented cast. As the free-spirited Beatriz fighting for her life, Rubin-Vega is at her fiercest and she is a memorable three-dimensional character. Jiménez as the confused, angry Olivia is charming as she reveals her best childhood memories, lists her favorite books which have been a refuge, and grows up in the course of the road trip. David Patrick Kelly and Michael Mulheren are suitably touching as a gay couple who have loved each other for 50 years. Danny Bolero is sensitive as the still grieving widower who takes a shine to Beatriz.
As junior ranger Pearl who makes appearances throughout (mainly through her spoken emails), Latoya Edwards is as feisty as Beatriz and as together as Olivia would like to be. Authoritative Marinda Anderson as Beatriz’s immigration lawyer back in L.A. makes periodic visits by phone in the course of the trip. Marcus Paul James is all business as the police officer who stops Beatriz along the way.
Miss You Like Hell does not become poignant until it is almost over when the stakes are raised and Olivia realizes that she could lose her mother if she is deported. The free-form, experimental staging is interesting but does not always help in delineating a cross-country trip. Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown have created a timely story in their investigation of the life of an undocumented immigrant but ultimately Miss You Like Hell avoids much of the possible drama in the way it doles out bits and pieces of Beatriz’s story.
Miss You Like Hell (though May 6, 2018)
The Public Theater
Newman Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission