4000 Miles is a showcase for dramatist Amy Herzog’s quirky sensibilities and canny insights into family dynamics; the script provides her with ample opportunities to turn her sharp eye (and ear) on the trials and tribulations of dysfunctional people
4000 Miles, by Amy Herzog. Directed by Eric C. Engel. Staged by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, MA, through August 17.
By Robert Israel
I approached the Gloucester Stage Company production of Amy Herzog’s two-act comedy 4000 Miles with trepidation. Three years ago I saw her play Belleville, which had been commissioned by her alma mater, the Yale University Repertory Theatre. What attracted me to the Yale Rep premiere production was the promise of hearing a highly praised new voice in American drama. Let me recount the ways Ms. Herzog had been lauded for 2011’s 4000 Miles: an Obie Award, strong reviews from the New York critics, a nomination as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, several national productions, and a $50,000 Whiting Writer’s Award (previous winner: playwright Tony Kushner). Yet Belleville failed in all the ways that 4000 Miles had apparently succeeded. The story was lugubrious, ponderous, and contrived. It drew a slew of negative reviews (including mine). The production was ultimately trucked down to New York, only to garner more lukewarm notices. While it hasn’t stopped the 36-year old wunderkind from cranking out new scripts, the experience suggests that early bouquets don’t rule out later brickbats.
This brings us back to 4000 Miles. The play is a showcase for Ms. Herzog’s quirky sensibilities and canny insights into family dynamics; the script provides her with ample opportunities to turn her sharp eye (and ear) on the trials and tribulations of dysfunctional people. And it is is being given a strong production at the Gloucester Stage Company.
Set in a crowded apartment in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, we meet Vera Joseph, (Nancy E. Carroll), a self-described member of an octogenarian club whose only living members are Vera and an unseen neighbor across the hall. The rest of the over 80s club, we soon learn, are long gone, including Vera’s two husbands.
As the play opens, Vera’s grandson Leo (Tom Rash) arrives. He’s sweaty and pungent after a long-distance bike ride that began in Seattle. Bearded, boyishly handsome, Leo has a glint of mischief in his eye. He has endured his share of tragedies, but he seems to have weathered the worst of them. The latter is the accidental death of his friend and co-bicyclist Micah. He’s also dealing with the impending breakup with his girl friend Bec (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) and, farther along in the play, there’s a fumbled attempt at coitus with a new flame Amanda (Samantha Ma). Yet he gets through all the trauma. His youthful vigor helps; the marijuana joints he puffs on also keep him relaxed.
Leo moves in with his left-leaning grandmother, availing himself of her hospitality, her money, and her memories. Over the course of two-acts, we learn just how, by turns, fuzzy or clear these memories can be. She shares stories of her philandering husbands, peace rallies, a commie cell she frequented, estrangement from her children, and the oddball friend across the hall that, despite the proximity of their apartments, remains inaccessible behind closed doors. Life for Vera is a slow whittling down to the nub. The death’s preliminary rounds have been fought and lost: loss of hearing, loss of teeth, loss of “finding the right words,” as she explains to her grandson when she is unable to finish sentences. As played by the highly capable and deeply entertaining Nancy E. Carroll, we are taken into Vera’s ever-encroaching world of loss without feeling an overplayed sense of pathos. This is the way one’s life ends: a whimper, yes, but accompanied by a sigh.
Leo is a helpful companion and Vera doesn’t want him to leave the roost. Manhattan, she tells him, has museums, night life, and fun stuff to do. Leo wants nothing of Gotham: he’s an outdoorsy type with his bushy whiskers and his disheveled mop of hair. He’s charming. He seems to have a way with the ladies, too, even though during the course of the play he fails to win any female hearts, at one point confessing that he made a stoned attempt to kiss his adopted sister back in St. Paul.
No defeat or humiliation for either grandson or grandmother comes off as grievous, despite the inevitable indignities that come with the approach of death. It’s the aura of mortality (he’s not as obvious as the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, but he’s always lurking behind the clutter and the drapes) that gives 4000 Miles its tantalizing edge, though even with eternity hovering in the wings the Herzog’s writing can come off as too neatly packaged at times.
The set by Ryan Bates lets us catch glimpses of the two bedrooms, where Vera and Leo lay down their burdens. These spaces are connected by cut away hallways that allow for a visual access to other rooms as well. The lighting by Russ Swift makes ample use of shadows and dusk, creating a powerful mood of other-worldliness when Leo recounts the bicycle accident on a highway in Wyoming that claimed the life of his best friend.
The trepidation I felt for Herzog’s work vanished at the final curtain. The grandson and grandmother, off to greet life’s inevitabilities, realize that the bond they have with one another is strong. They both have lives worth living, but they share the bitter knowledge that each day will be a battle to make the most of what they have.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org