Sometimes the best productions pop up when you’re not expecting anything out of the ordinary. Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is admittedly a Pulitzer finalist — but so are many mediocre scripts. It’s a low-key, four-character, ninety-minute work, and it arrived on the Miners Alley stage without a burst of glowing pre-publicity, although artistic director Len Matheo did mention to us how much he liked the play and how hard he worked to get production rights. The plot concerns the relationship between a somewhat lost 21-year-old, Leo, and Vera, his 91-year-old grandmother, and as you enter the theater, it’s hard not to think that you’ve already seen several plays about unlikely friendships: two very different people who slowly come to understand, respect and even love each other. But it turns out this particular story is told through quietly incisive dialogue; the characters are fascinating, the insights Herzog evokes lasting, and the laughter, when it comes — and it comes often — is a happy, full-throated surprise.
Leo arrives at Vera’s apartment in the wee hours of the morning, disheveled from a cross-country bike ride. One of the first things she says to him is, “You smell” — though she can’t actually say anything coherent until she’s put her teeth in, or hear what Leo has to say before finding her hearing aid. Leo is visibly distressed, and we learn eventually that a close friend of his died on that bike ride, a tragedy that frayed his longtime relationship with his girlfriend, Bec, to the breaking point. Leo’s family is fractured, and his relationship with his mother — Vera’s stepdaughter — is tenuous.
Vera is a fascinating character. We first met her in Herzog’s earlier play, After the Revolution, which received its regional premiere at Curious in 2013. That play has a more complex plot, but I found it less compelling. In Revolution, Vera appeared as an elderly, still-dyed-in-the-wool Marxist, widow of a onetime giant of the left. She’s still political in 4000 Miles, but less dogmatic. Now she distills her ideology into a generalized concern for the well-being of humankind, and is far more preoccupied with the constant indignities of advanced age than politics: difficulty getting around, loss of sensory acuity, and the way the words she needs keep eluding her, surely one of the hardest trials for a brilliant intellectual and activist. Despite all this, Vera shows no signs of dementia. She exchanges nightly phone calls with an elderly neighbor she professes to despise, each confirming that the other remains functional and alive. It was a brilliant stroke for Matheo to cast Deborah Persoff in the role; she deliberately subdues her usual vivid on-stage persona to communicate Vera’s age and the unique mixture of resignation and rebellion with which she handles it, providing all the woman’s complexities, temper flare-ups and moments of tenderness without a jot of sentimentality.
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In the hands of Curtiss Johns, Leo is rounded and complex, too. Like Vera, Leo is somewhat out of his element. Early on, he assures her that if she doesn’t want to take him in, he can just find somewhere to pitch his tent. “You’re in New York City,” she reminds him tartly. Leo hasn’t begun to figure out his life yet. He’s the kind of kid who subsists on occasional jobs and heads for ski country to work in the winter. He’s also political — a greenie who refuses to carry a cell phone but shows little awareness of wider environmental issues. In their separate ways, both are dealing with mortality — Leo with the shock of his friend’s death, Vera with the many deaths of friends and associates, as well as her own failing body.
Bec shows up for a couple of wistful scenes and receives a warm, grounded performance from Alaina Beth Reel, and then there’s the girl Leo brings home for a quick roll in the hay: a rich, eccentric young Chinese woman named Amanda, wonderfully played by Jenna Moll Reyes as a full-out hilarious little flake — except for the genuine pain and horror that show on her face when she realizes Vera’s a Communist. “I hate Communism,” she exclaims, and for a fleeting second you sense what her family must have suffered in Mao’s China.
4000 Miles reaches across boundaries political, familial and cultural, as well as the profound boundary separating age from youth, with warmth and intelligence. Don’t miss it.