The best thing about American writer Amy Herzog’s beautifully understated play (premiering in the UK after opening in New York in 2011) is that – in spite of its title – it refuses to reach a destination. Aided by James Dacre’s sensitive direction, her characters talk with all of the insight and opacity of real people and their worlds are glimpsed rather than laid out for us like theatrical wares to be sold.
91-year-old Vera is woken at 3am by the unexpected arrival of her grandson, Leo, at the door of her apartment in New York’s West Village. He has just completed a 4000 mile bike ride from Washington State, during which his best friend and travelling companion, Micah, died in an accident and he has cut himself off from his worried family.
Leo’s gestures at leaving soon fall by the wayside, and he and Vera find themselves sharing her apartment for over a month. As the days pass, grandmother and grandson grapple with their relationship with each other and with the people who turn up at the door or make contact over the phone or via Skype on a jacked-up internet connection.
There’s something incredibly refreshing about watching an inter-generational relationship that isn’t parental or sexualised in some way. Neither character is the other’s reason for being there (he tried his girlfriend first) – creating a familial closeness but emotional distance between the pair that rings true and keeps front-of-stage moralising to a minimum.
Herzog takes time in revealing details about Vera and Leo. Her Communist past and his wide-eyed hippyishness coalesce around them rather than constraining them as (stereo)types. She’s no-nonsense but also irascible; he’s idealistic but also spiteful and compassionate by turns. Like Simon Kenny’s extraordinarily lifelike set, they’re a realistic jumble of things.
Distance here is geographical, emotional and wrapped up in time. Vera and Leo communicate across faded door labels, dog-eared books, stories of failed marriages and her disintegrating memory. The apartment is a ramshackle refuge from the ravages of time and loss. Whether it’s Leo’s new-age speak or Vera’s half-remembered politics, they rely on rituals of thought and action to get them by.
Sara Kestelman’s half-deaf Vera navigates the stage with physical difficulty, mirroring her frustration at forgetting words, keys and her chequebook. Her moods swing with anger and the shadow of fear. Meanwhile, Daniel Boyd’s straggly Leo lollops around the apartment, a far-from-free spirit befuddled by his grandmother’s refusal to be a comfortably background presence.
Their prickly, exasperated but affectionate relationship is what fuels the core of the play, but they are not its only characters. Jing Lusi is painfully funny as university student Amanda, completely overwhelming Leo during an abortive one-night-stand with her self-conscious zaniness and colourful car-crash of easily-owned principles and insecurities.
And then there is Bec, the girlfriend abandoned by Leo after Micah’s death, who wants to leave him not because she’s stopped caring, but because it’s just too painful. Defensive from the moment she appears, Jenny Hulse imbues her character with a stiffness born of resentment and need. She can’t get past her own hurt to understand his.
At various points, Vera and Leo have moments of self-awareness, but the play doesn’t end. The next confusion emerges along with the next issue to be dodged or ignored. Even the final scene feels like a pause rather than a conclusion. Because – as this subtle and profoundly mature production grasps – that’s just how life is.
Our review of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, New York.