Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and won an Obie for Best New American Play, and within seconds, I knew why. 91-year-old Vera (Clare Coulter) is woken at 3 a.m. by her University-aged grandson Leo (Nathan Barrett) who has just biked across the country and arrived in New York with considerable baggage (figuratively and literally). The two clash physically (Leo with his lionesque hair and lean physique, Vera with her bent, shuffle) and generationally, but at the same time share a love for each other and humanity at large. These two idealists yearn for a different world, a better world, and do their small bit to make it that way. Like many armchair idealists, they spout a certain amount of intellectual nonsense and can be guilty of stubbornness, selective-blindness, and hypocrisy, but that’s part of the charm. Both are shielded by defensive layers. How will they ever navigate this visit?
Leo is the more complicated of the two. He’s a beardy-dready-hippie type (he has curls not dreads, but that’s besides the point) and the sole survivor of a bike trip that he intended to take with his girlfriend and another couple. The girls bailed on the trip, and a tragic accident to the other young man has left Leo scarred. Since, Leo has been AWOL, refusing to call home or speak to anyone. He’s dropped out of school. He has no job and no money. To add to this, his relationships are a mess. He has am affection for his adopted Chinese sister that borders on incestuous. His “it’s complicated” girlfriend is in New York attending school. He starves for love like a Pavolovian dog, yet is clued out when it comes to simple acts of kindness.
Vera, on the other hand, is declining and frail, but full of spit and vinegar. She calls things as she sees them, even if it’s not exactly politically correct. A 1960’s peace activist (a hippie of a different kind), she adores lefty causes and Cuba. However, her friends are dying one by one and sometimes her only contact during the day is a phone call exchanged with a never-seen across the hall neighbor Ginny. Her apartment décor, her books, her stories of her two late husbands all suggest that she had a vibrant life and is losing it to dementia. She loses her keys, teeth, and checkbook with regularity, accusing Leo of stealing.
The play is built around a series of vignettes as Leo works through his issues during a month-long stay in his grandmother’s apartment. She provides him with what one wants from an elder (and something she very much wants to give) – perspective. Leo grows ever so slightly during his stay, becoming more of a mensch and ever so slightly less self-absorbed. He’s a good guy at heart, but lacks maturity.
Even though the play focuses on the small transition in a single character, it hits fundamental themes of human existence. It taps into the fears and anxieties all people share about being old, about being young, about being rejected, about being wrong. At the same time it celebrates what elevates the human spirit – a sense of purpose and a sense of connection. At no time, though, is anything presented as perfect. The connection between Vera and Leo is awkward and challenging, yet also heartfelt. 4000 Miles is deeply honest in its examination of life. Every line, however funny, has a realness to it. Herzog has tapped into something very profound.
With such good material to work with, the Centaur production (dir. Roy Surette) easily hits it out of the park. Everything in the production is spot-on, from the set to the pace to the acting (the music between vignettes, however, is a different story. Once the Bob Dylan stopped, it was sappy and did little for the mood). While all actors were strong, Li Li as Amanda nailed the party-girl, rich Parsons (= pretentious art school) Chinese immigrant student. She tells jokes that no one gets, slurs, trips, and cock teases in a perfect performance. At the same time, she shifts gears when finding out that she’s in the apartment of a pro-Communist. Her delivery is spectacular. Liana Montoro was more restrained as ambitious Bec, but also delivered a great show of internal turmoil as she drifts away from her hippie roots to actualize her own life direction. Her break up scene with Leo is beautifully modulated.
The set (Barbara Matis) is spectacular in its details — the early 70s furniture, an crocheted afghan, a corkboard of photographs, sad African violets, NY Times crossword puzzles, books crammed into every space. The set is even more intriguing because we glimpse the entry into Vera’s and Leo’s rooms, the kitchen, and even the hallway where Ginny’s door is.
This is a wonderful production and highly recommended.
4000 Miles plays at the Centaur Theatre (453 St. Francois-Xavier) on Tuesday – Sundays until April 20.