Modern life rarely succumbs to the dizzying histrionics of the theater: we are reasonably secure against betrayal, war, revenge and the other trappings of High Drama, but within that security, life is subject to daily concerns – love, family, change – the common drama, a smaller drama, perhaps, but no less significant. Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is a show of the smaller drama, a glimpse into the lives of two people who in all their stubborn reality can hope for no more absolute truth or convenient resolution than can any of us. Thoughtfully structured without plodding narration, tender but never mawkish, honest but never easy, this is not the usual stuff of the stage but the stuff of life onstage.
The stuff of two lives, really, Leo, a 21-year-old (played by Gabriel Ebert), who, distraught and adrift following a recent accident on a cross-country bike trip, shows up at his 91-year-old grandmother’s West Village apartment for want of anywhere else to go. Vera, his grandmother, (Mary Louise Wilson) welcomes him with reservation – he is apparently estranged from his mother, refusing to communicate with her – but evidently happy for the company. The two establish a close, often prickly, frequently humorous and thoroughly familial bond, convincingly and absorbingly portrayed by both.
Leo’s ostensibly laid-back attitude is belied by a nervous energy that sometimes manifests as the jitters, sometimes as a total inability to engage: in those moments, Leo storms off to a corner and collapses into his hands, willing his life and problems away. Under Ebert’s measured control, Leo never feels rash or adolescent: he is a young man at the precipice of adulthood, truly grieving and with nowhere to go. Mary Louise Wilson’s Vera is so legitimate, so convincing, you worry for her. When she struggles to carry a cup of tea and saucer, you suffer the arthritis in her fingers. When she fails to remember a word, you are embarrassed with her. The occasional tension between Leo and Vera sets your teeth on edge as if you’ve suddenly become privy to a private family fight; their warmest moments feel as authentic as highlights from a home-movie reel. It seems you haven’t been thrust into a story, rather you’ve stepped into a home.
The set design (by Lauren Helpern) contributes to the homespun feel. Set in Vera’s spacious West Village apartment, no detail is overlooked or out of place – from the well-stocked bookcases, to the sliver of apartment-building hallway visible just beyond Vera’s door.
Both are avid progressives, her of the utopian heart-on-sleeve old school, him of the low-carbon-footprint, college-abstaining new school. Politics forms a bubbling undercurrent in the show, frequently out of sight, out of mind, but every so often spilling over center-stage, most notably in a scene where a Parson’s student, Amanda (Greta Lee), is suddenly humanized from a hilarious, frivolous drunk to an indignant child of a Chinese family ravaged under Mao by the knowledge that Vera is a Communist. When to talk about politics and how personal politics can be trumped or bolstered by one’s personal life are a few of the dilemmas encircling Leo and Vera’s more pressing problems.
At the center of the story, complicating this little family of two, is Vera’s deteriorating health and Leo’s deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend. Though tenacious, mobile and generally in good spirits, Vera is slow on her feet and quick to forget; she accuses Leo of moving things and taking things he has never touched or seen. Meanwhile, Bec (Zoë Winters), Leo’s girlfriend, announces without any forewarning that she wants to break up. Her motivations are never detailed, but her conviction is striking: reeling from the same accident that devastated Leo, and living ever since as a Manhattanite college student – the antithesis of Leo’s rambling rural lifestyle – they are growing apart because she is growing while Leo is stunted. He tries pathetically, with a pumpkin and a poem, to win her back. But win her back to what? That, perhaps, is the central dilemma of the play: when whether through age or accident you have lost your tether to life, how do you make your way back towards it?
Neither Amy Herzog nor Daniel Aukin (the sure-handed director) pretends to have an answer, and the characters, it seems, don’t covet one. They will find their own way, and we will be privileged to watch the struggle.