BWW Reviews: POTS at The Works Series Takes a Giant Step with 4000 MILES
Amy Herzog's family drama (albeit a drama with a number of very funny moments) 4000 MILES is unobtrusively generating a thoughtful, low-key alternative to the outsized HAIRSPRAY (already a sellout at "Big Sister" Playhouse on the Square just a block or so away); and it's a safe bet that a number of theatre-going Memphians are already trekking south to DeSoto Family Theatre's epic presentation of LES MISERABLES. However, this intelligent, intimate little piece is currently providing a rewarding alternative at Theatre Works, quietly nestled across from the parking garage at Overton Square.
On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much happening in Herzog's subtle script. After a lengthy, cross-country bike trek, a disheveled, bearded "Leo" (Christopher Joel Onken) arrives - at an ungodly hour - at the apartment of his elderly, once socially committed grandmother, a woman who had been married to a prominent socialist, a man whose "fifteen minutes of fame" has already begun to fade. The grandmother, "Vera" (Karen Mason Riss), is the only remaining survivor of a once fun-loving group of seniors; she's the last leaf on the tree, muddled in memory (she's constantly misplacing keys and dentures and checkbooks, and she laments that the sharpest sting of advancing years is the failure to remember words).
Leo's physical appearance is only one aspect of the "mess" he has made of his life; through a series of brief scenes between these two characters (and I like the way that Herzog teases us by jangling the keys of language which will ultimately open the doors of drama that deepen and enhance our understanding of the characters), we discover that Leo has become estranged from his parents, alienated himself from the level-headed "Bec" (whose spunk is nicely conveyed by Carly Crawford), overstepped his bounds as a brother, and, most disturbing, perhaps has been the cause of a personal tragedy. (Throughout the play, we see him constantly sporting a backpack, though it's the mental "baggage" that weighs him down.)
Initially, the connection between Leo and Vera is extremely tentative; he is testy, guarded, and reticent to touch. When she reaches out to him, he quickly pulls back; but, as the play progresses and as these two lost souls find something in each other that strengthens and renews them, we see him relax enough to lay his head lovingly in her lap.
Vera, too, has become disconnected from society. She seems to have become little more than the Castro bobblehead sitting atop her piano, a reminder of a previous, active life committed to change. She's like an old fire reduced to ashes, but even though she can't always connect the dots, there are enough sparks left beneath those ashes to awaken her need to nurture and help another. (Interestingly, we assume that Vera is a "blood relative" of Leo; she isn't - his mother was from her husband's previous marriage). In short, in the three weeks that Leo spends with Vera, a genuine love and concern develop; and though Vera can't always move from Point A to Point B, her instincts and sense of right and wrong are enough to help Leo find his bearings and move in a positive direction. It's as if two generational lines intersect, briefly - but potently enough to have had a positive impact. At her age and state of mind, Vera is not likely to have this opportunity again; but Leo will be leaving with a gift that he will take with him through life.
This play reminds me of any number of things. One of my favorite Robert Frost poems is "Death of the Hired Man." "Silas," an old, dying farmhand, has been rambling about the young man who, one summer, worked alongside him; old loner Silas was actually able to teach the youngster a thing or two, and he took pride in doing so. It gave his life meaning. Something similar is going on in this play. In the past, Vera had sought for societal change; however, with Leo sharing her apartment, she has wrought a more personal change.
I was also reminded of the late, great Bette Davis' famous mantra, "Old age ain't no place for sissies." (And was THAT ever true of that famous actress.) What remains unspoken is what lies before Vera, and it's something that she will ultimately have to face alone. Not only is she a widow, but her friends and her memory have fallen by the way. It takes courage to face what she must face - but perhaps that will be the subject of a later Herzog play.
As far as the two performers are concerned, they have wonderful chemistry. Karen Mason Riss is often too long away from the stage, but she is a seasoned actress; and this has been a wonderful year for actresses such as her. Throughout the year I have been impressed - time and time again - by a series of stunning performances by actresses who for some time have wandered beyond the boundaries of ingenues: Sylvia Barringer Wilson in TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL, Janie Paris in HAINT, Irene Crist in THE LYONS, and, musically, Carla McDonald in GYPSY. Ms. Riss, poking about with her dentures and hearing aids, creates a moving, believable portrait of a woman who has been tapped on the shoulder by mortality.
Christopher Joel Onken has had an enviable season for a young actor. As an Associate Member at Playhouse on the Square, he has given one outstanding performance after another: DEATHTRAP, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, RED, THE LYONS. Sadly, he will be leaving soon for Florida, and that will be a blow for a number of us who have been continually surprised by his growth and success as an actor. Watch him closely in this play; he uses everything from voice to body to sculpt a performance (in one scene, a nervous jerking of the foot underscores a strong personal admission).
Tony Isbell has directed this play with great sensitivity and, I imagine, respect for the talents of his four performers (Eileen Kuo has a charming bit as a potential sexual conquest for Leo). The set, a dimly lit reminder of a once active life, is by Ron Gordon; and Mary Lana Rice has enhanced the tone with her subdued lighting. Highly recommended. Through August 3 (my birthday, by the way).