I really wanted to like Miss You Like Hell. Maybe that’s a risky thing to admit, since it acknowledges that we — critics, humans — don’t show up to plays in pristine states of impartiality. Then again, does anyone really believe that we do? I wanted to like the show because in so many ways, it felt like a step in an exciting direction. Almost exactly a year ago, I went to see a new musical in the Public’s Newman Theater that didn’t sit right with me — among other reasons, for its myopic presentation of a supposedly “feminist” narrative by a production team composed almost entirely of men. Now, a year later, here’s Miss You Like Hell, a new musical about a mother and daughter that was written, scored, and directed by women — a musical with a heroine who kneels on the floor in the show’s opening moments and sings, “Be with me, ancestors / Be with me, witchy witches / I call upon the Feminine Divine / Yo, back me up bitches!”
Yet, things still aren’t sitting quite right. It’s not that there isn’t a ton of power in the room: Quiara Alegría Hudes (the first Latina playwright to win a Pulitzer, for Water by the Spoonful, and a Tony winner for the book of In the Heights) wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics with Erin McKeown, who wrote the music; and the show is directed by Lear deBessonet, the founder of the expansive, ambitious Public Works initiative, who is known for her large-scale, community-minded productions. It’s a formidable trio, augmented by Miss You Like Hell’s two stars: the leonine Daphne Rubin-Vega as Beatriz, an undocumented immigrant fighting both for legal status and for connection with her estranged 16-year-old daughter; and Gizel Jiménez, who plays the daughter, Olivia, with hunched shoulders, darting eyes, and a big voice ringing with hurt.
Everyone, including the eight-member ensemble that provides a cast of minor characters, is clearly throwing themselves into the play as if they’re competing in the Earnestness Olympics, and maybe that’s your thing. As for me, I just don’t love getting jerked, and Miss You Like Hell is an unapologetic tearjerker. Watching it, I found myself longing for sharpness, for bite, for a more trenchant sense of humor to slice through the play’s warm and fervent emotionality. You’ll be able to hurt me more, I kept thinking, if you ever let me laugh. Not chuckle or “aww” but really laugh. Crack me up and you’ll crack me open.
Miss You Like Hell, though, is a 90-minute exercise in sincerity — which is intermittently moving if never fully invigorating. The story follows Rubin-Vega’s Beatriz, who first stalks onto the stage in combat boots and a fall of sunset-colored ombre curls as the ensemble encourages her with a repeated refrain: “You can do this.” Beatriz has driven across the country in a busted old pickup truck, and now she’s standing on the streets of Philly underneath her daughter’s window at 4 a.m. “She is on the horizon, her face,” Beatriz sings, perhaps anticipating the balcony scene she’s about to play with her kid, but when Olivia emerges, she’s no sun but a dark teenage storm cloud. Skinny and scowling in a ratty oversized T-shirt, Olivia isn’t thrilled to see her mom. “It’s been four years,” she snaps flatly, “This is weird, Beatriz. Come after school. We’ll grab slices and get caught up.”
But Beatriz doesn’t have that kind of time. Soon she and Olivia are headed west on an impromptu road trip — “Seven days, hija,” says Beatriz. “One week with my Shakespeare Patti Smith Pablo Neruda of a daughter” — a stretch of time that Olivia, whose tortured yearning for her mother is obvious under her surly surface, has agreed to in spite of herself. But of course, Mom’s motivations are more complicated than they seem. Olivia writes an anonymous blog (CallingAllCastaways.tumblr.com) where she flexes her young literary muscles and has recently posted a veiled suicide threat. When Beatriz calls her out, Olivia of course scoffs and evades, but she lets herself believe that her estranged mother is on a rescue mission. The woman who walked out on her four years ago after a failed custody struggle has come back, and she wants to save her.
And of course, Beatriz does want to save her daughter. But she herself also needs saving. She’s got an immigration court hearing back in L.A. in a couple of days, and things aren’t looking good. She has an old, bogus marijuana-possession charge blotting her record, and her lawyer has advised her that having someone “testify to [her] character” might help her make it out of the system and remain in the country. So the scene is set for Olivia to find out that she’s not simply a beloved daughter, but part of a desperate plan. She doesn’t just need — she’s needed, and her newly blossoming affection for her mother will have to weather an emotional hailstorm as she copes with Beatriz’s seeming manipulation and betrayal. Olivia’s the sullen, brainy type — she sings a lot about escaping into books — and so of course she’s got a metaphor for how she’s feeling. She recalls visiting the Philly art museum every Sunday with her mother before Beatriz fell out of her life: “Prometheus Bound. You remember that?” she says, recalling the Rubens painting. “An eagle lands on Prometheus, rips out his liver. The wound heals overnight. Next day the eagle returns, chews him open. Over and over. I feel like the eagle just returned.”
Hudes’s book is smart, if a bit on the nose, and with a less generic score and sharper direction, Miss You Like Hell might really start to flex its muscles. But McKeown’s songs evaporate from the brain pretty quickly, and deBessonet is so invested in the poignancy of the story that she never really finds its edges. Rubin-Vega and Jiménez achieve some electricity in their scenes, the most visceral of which is a painful crescendo of intimacies and accusations that ends with Beatriz calling her daughter “a zombie from the neck down,” and Olivia going through her backpack to throw a condom at her mom and snarl at her to “go fuck a guy.”
That’s real shit, and I wish any of the encounters mother and daughter experience along their journey had half the punch. But Miss You Like Hell’s ensemble often seems like it’s been asked to convey the sweet communal uplift of a gospel choir. Their job is to be life-affirming rather than complex. We get the sunny Latoya Edwards as Pearl, a junior park ranger and reader of Olivia’s blog who encourages her to visit Yellowstone on her travels — and who leads a smiling, hand-clapping number about the park’s beauties, including the saccharine lyrics, “Yellowstone, every day is the first time / Fall in love every day, like the first time.” Then there’s David Patrick Kelly and Michael Mulheren as Higgins and Mo, a pair of retired bikers who are also the world’s sweetest bear couple and have committed to driving their Harleys around the country to renew their vows in each of the 50 states. Most maudlin of all is Danny Bolero as Manuel, a Peruvian tamale vendor that Beatriz and Olivia meet in South Dakota. Poor Bolero’s got to make it through “Tamales,” an overwhelmingly drippy song that involves listing ingredients and cooking techniques, a eulogy to his character’s dead wife, and a bunch of musical metaphors about remembrance and the power of love.
DeBessonet stages this kind of song with full commitment to its unblinking schmaltz. She never pushes back when the material veers into sentimentality, and by failing to offer any creative resistance she’s actually letting air out of Miss You Like Hell’s tires. There’s power to its central plot, and to Rubin-Vega’s and Jiménez’s performances — watching Olivia cope with the inevitable outcome to Beatriz’s struggle with this country’s breathtakingly toxic immigration court system really is a blow to the heart — but this car trip sticks to such well-worn emotional terrain, it loses its sense of adventure. I’d like to see Beatriz and Olivia go off-roading.
Miss You Like Hell is at the Public Theater through May 6.