BWW Reviews: Nancy E. Carroll is Worth the Journey to 4000 MILES at Gloucester Stage Company
Performances through August 17 at Gloucester Stage Company, Gorton Theater, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
Playwright Amy Herzog mined her family history to create the characters in her plays After the Revolution and 4000 Miles, but I'm sure she couldn't have imagined the way her Marxist grandmother Vera Joseph is so vividly realized in the Boston area premiere of the latter at the Gloucester Stage Company. Rockport resident and regional favorite Nancy E. Carroll inhabits the character, who is more than two decades her senior, in a richly detailed performance that is worth the journey to the north shore coastal community from any point on the compass.
Winner of the 2012 Obie Award for Best New Play and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 4000 Miles is a slice-of-life drama that observes a month in the relationship between the 91-year old grandmother (Carroll) and her 21-year old grandson Leo (Tom Rash) who drops in on her in the middle of the night at the end of a harrowing cross-country bicycle trip. Living alone in her West Village apartment in New York City since the death of her husband ten years earlier, Vera is both lonely and fiercely independent and self-sufficient. She and Leo clearly like each other, but they spend a lot of time warily circling around, negotiating the terms of their temporary living arrangement. The reason for Leo's visit is a mystery to Vera (and to the audience), although hints and red herrings are mentioned en route to the reveal, but the grandmother exhibits incredible patience waiting for him to open up.
I'm afraid my patience wore thin before Vera's; the astute dialogue notwithstanding, the story doesn't cover much territory between point A and point B. Leo survived a traumatic event on the road, reacted in an unorthodox manner, and his family and girlfriend are pissed at him, so he seeks refuge with his nonjudgmental nana. While the introduction of ancillary characters offers the opportunity for Leo to talk about his journey, his conversations with girlfriend Bec (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) raise more questions than they answer. Muirhead's nuanced performance evokes empathy and makes their arguments feel realistic, but Herzog fails to lay any groundwork for Bec's change of heart in the second act.
The character of Amanda (Samantha Ma doing a great rendition of a smart girl passing as a valley girl) serves the purpose of surrogate on several fronts, chief among them as a stand-in for Leo's adopted Chinese sister. That storyline (which I won't reveal) is icky and fishy (one of the herrings I mentioned), not to mention superfluous. At least he admits to Amanda why he is at his grandmother's apartment, but it seems to be solely for the purpose of getting sympathy so she will be willing to sleep with him. Rash and Ma credibly play the discomfort and awkwardness of their scene together, and she establishes her character's quirky persona in a very short period of time.
Rash is a Rockport native making his GSC debut. His lanky, bearded physical appearance helps to make him look the part of the long-distance cyclist fresh (or not so fresh) from the road. He conveys Leo's Zen-like, laid back demeanor, but is also quick to flash anger or frustration when he and Vera have one of their many little disputes. Rash excels in his scenes with Muirhead when he's on a level playing field, but he's not the same caliber as Carroll. When Vera makes an affectionate gesture, such as stroking Leo' s head, Carroll is as one with the character and her expression is genuine and caring, but Rash maintains a distance, like he's being touched by a co-worker rather than a dear relative.
Director Eric C. Engel grasps the timing necessary to bring out the play's humor and Carroll is a master of delivering a very funny line with a deadpan expression. As good as her comedic skills are, she deserves the most credit for her physical transformation to make us believe that she is a nonagenarian. Clothing, makeup, and a cane help with the image, but Carroll's gait, posture, the way she struggles to stand up from a seated position, and her unmistakable frustration when Vera can't find her words, are spot on. When she stands erect with a big smile for the curtain call, you see the years melt away and the contrast is stunning. Herzog wants us to know that her grandmother was an interesting, multi-faceted person, and experience what aging is like for her as her abilities diminish. With Carroll, we get all of that and more. 4000 Miles may not cover a lot of ground, but Nancy E. Carroll goes the distance.
Photo credit: Gary Ng (Nancy E. Carroll, Tom Rash)