BWW Review: 4000 MILES at Shakespeare & Company: Definitely Worth the Trip
Written by Amy Herzog, Directed by Nicole Ricciardi; Set Designer, John McDermott; Costume Designer, Stella Schwartz; Lighting Designer, James W. Bilnoski; Sound Designer, Amy Altadonna; Stage Manager, Fran Rubenstein
CAST (in alphabetical order): Gregory Boover, Emma Geer, Zoë Laiz, Annette Miller
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." (Lao Tzu) In 4000 Miles, at the end of a cross-country bicycle journey, 21-year-old Leo takes his first steps toward rebuilding his life after a series of missteps and misfortunes that have sent him into a tailspin. When he drops in on his 91-year-old widowed grandmother Vera at 3 a.m., the rude awakening is only the beginning of their odd-coupling in her West Village apartment. Over the course of a month, these two outsiders engage in a series of battles - of wits, of generations, of values - only to discover how much they have in common en route to forging a deep, loving connection.
Shakespeare & Company opens their 40th Anniversary Season in Lenox under new Artistic Director Allyn Burrows with Amy Herzog's 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist and 2012 Obie Award-winner for Best New Play. 4000 Miles is beautifully written, featuring dialogue that sounds like the way people really talk, and Herzog is deft at mixing pathos and humor, always inserting a laugh line at the right place to alleviate tension without negating the impact of what preceded it. The main characters are supported by two young women who interact primarily with Leo, each bringing out an important aspect of his story as Herzog clearly defines their personalities and purpose in being.
4000 Miles is character driven and the character-in-chief is Vera Joseph. Ten years a widow, she still has her late husband's name on the doorbell to her apartment, indicative of how little she has moved on in that time. She shuffles around, attending to mundane tasks such as laundry, clearing dishes, and paying bills, and has a daily phone check-in with Ginny, the equally cantankerous neighbor across the hall. Leo's unexpected presence disrupts her solitary routine, but he is welcomed, even if Vera expresses it in a backhanded way. She takes some getting used to, but they figure it out, one day at a time, because the bottom line is that they need each other.
Annette Miller gives an incredible performance as the nonagenarian, virtually disappearing into the character. Offstage, Miller is lithe and agile, totally obscuring her age, but she physically shrinks into a little old lady when she dons Vera's gray wig and persona. Her shuffling gait is slow and sometimes halting, and she exerts great effort each time she tries to rise from sitting on the sofa. When Vera frequently has trouble finding words, Miller's expression of exasperation is organic and you just know she has experienced the same thing (haven't we all?). The most remarkable aspect, however, is the underlying warmth that seeps into her portrayal of this feisty, crusty grandmother, perhaps even surprising herself with her ability to make room in her heart for her grandson. Miller also makes it clear that Vera is not a woman to be trifled with, but she is straightforward and says what she means.
While Miller is conducting a master class, Gregory Boover matches her stride in his nuanced portrayal. Leo comes across as a sensitive latter-day hippie, going with the flow, but he is tamping down roiling emotions. He has yet to deal with issues back home in Minnesota, a serious event on the bike trip, and girlfriend problems. Boover's range is on display as Leo's defenses break down and he has to drop his brave front. He shares great chemistry with each of his scene partners, showing different sides of Leo with each of the three women.
Emma Geer plays Leo's estranged girlfriend Bec and does a great job of letting us see the complexity of her feelings and their relationship. Her scenes with Miller are a spot on reflection of what it is like for a young person to have to listen to an elder blather on about something of no importance while trying to appear polite and respectful. As the girl Leo brings home from a bar, Zoë Laiz (Amanda) is a hoot, but far from a stereotype. Her flashes of seriousness and intelligence let us know that she is in control of the situation, despite a level of inebriation.
Under the direction of Nicole Ricciardi, 4000 Miles is well-paced, with great care taken to accentuate comic timing. Her cast is adept at delivering the laughs, often with an eye roll or side glance or well-placed pause. One of the best such moments occurs after Leo delivers a long, heartfelt monologue with Vera by his side on the sofa in the darkened living room. I won't spoil it with further details, but just wait for it. Ricciardi also understands what is required to drive home the dramatic, emotional events that result in the connection the characters crave and the audience expects.
Set designer John McDermott's cozy apartment shows us the world that Vera lives in, while Amy Altadonna provides the sounds of the city that Vera might not always hear, as well as piano interludes between scenes. Stella Schwartz designs costumes that help define the characters, with appropriate cyclist's gear for Leo and some outrageous pieces concocted for Amanda. Lighting designer James W. Bilnoski effectively changes mood and time of day. His contribution is especially important in the late-night scene when Leo tells Vera about the events of his bike trip. Boover's face is very dimly lit, as if filtered through horizontal blinds on a window, and Miller is totally in shadow. While the intent is clearly to show that Leo can only disclose the story in the dark, I would have preferred to be able to see just a bit more of his face and a little bit of Vera's reaction to his confession.
4000 Miles is a delight from start to finish. It tells an accessible story about a grandson and grandmother on parallel journeys - he is growing up and she is growing old - and how they are able to help each other with the challenges they face along the way. In spite of the wide age gap between them, Leo and Vera are open to learning from one another and they actually like each other. Playwright Herzog develops three-dimensional characters and Ricciardi allows the actors the freedom to interpret who they are within the frame of the director's vision. The result is a funny, moving production with performances that are not to be missed. Begin with a single step.
Photo credit: Christopher Duggan (Gregory Boover, Annette Miller)