Cadence Theatre’s ’4000 Miles’ highlights the healing power of compassion
Read More: Amy Herzog, Anne Michelle Forbes, cadence theatre, Elaina Riddell, Elizabeth Weiss Hopper, Gary Hopper, Irene Ziegler, Jesse Senechal, Johnny Day, Kaelie Madison Ukrop, Michael Jarrett, Rich Mason
Amy Herzog is the author of 4000 Miles. I knew the name but unfamiliar with her work. 4000 Miles proves her to be a gifted young playwright. Ms. Herzog’s particular gift is in finding the essence of a relationship and honestly showing it from all sides while keeping her audience enthralled by tapping into the compassion and curiosity about human nature that draws us (let us hope) to the theater.
20-something Leo shows up at his 95-year-old grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment at 3 a.m. Leo has appeared without warning following a grueling biking trip from Seattle to New York. He wakes the old lady up who is startled to see him and has to excuse herself to put in her teeth. He looks and smells like a mess. He says he is making a brief pit stop. We learn that what he really needs is to ground himself after a journey of loss, trauma and grave rifts within his family.
Vera is the widow of an important Communist intellectual and writer who died ten years prior. Old liberalism confronts new liberalism. Hers is more of the socialist variety, his more of the Greenpeace, environmental niche.
The beauty of this play and its quiet natural journey is that two very smart, opinionated people eventually take the time to hear one another and communicate, each finding healing power in the connection with the other.
It’s not important to discuss politics, because the play isn’t focused on that. The two main characters are experiencing great losses.
At ninety-five, Vera has lost her balance, memory and most distressing, “her words.” She starts a thought and can’t remember the reference. The walls of her apartment are lined with the books that informed her life with her husband. They serve as an ironic reminder of her inability to quote any of them.
Leo’s cross country ride was originally planned for two couples. Somehow the women dropped out and Leo went it alone with his friend Micha. In the middle of the journey, Micha is killed. Instead of going to the funeral, Leo decides to finish the trip alone.
The bicycle trip is also planned because Leo needs to escape from his West Coast family. It seems they freaked out when, on peyote, a complicated familial interaction occurred. Leo doesn’t see what the big deal is no matter the taboo.
There are two other subplots. One involving Leo’s girlfriend Bec (the one who dropped out of the bike trip but is now living in New York City going to college) and Amanda, a Chinese-American girl Leo picks up for a one night sexual romp that gets hysterically interrupted to the point of disaster.
These subplots just fuel the issues Leo has to deal with but, up to now, refused to do. As his residence with his grandmother grows from a few days to a month, Leo has time to work his life out.
As I say the focus is on the grandmother-grandson relationship. Herzog has created a small story about a big ideas. What it means to be human and intricate. The acceptance of life, what it means to be alive, where you are and how you go on. The strongest theme may be the power of compassion to heal.
This play affords great roles for actors and this cast of four live up to the challenge. I may not agree with every interpretation, but I respect the hard work and focus to detail each put into perfecting the characterizations they chose.
Irene Ziegler is several generations younger than Vera, however Vera is an anomalous ninety-five year old. Despite the loss of hearing, memory and teeth, there is nothing wrong with her vitality and her ability to humanly engage. Ms. Ziegler plays the outrageous granny card to great comic effect. She uses both Vera’s vitality and physical weaknesses to great advantage. She has a sharp sense of timing and is indeed very funny.
Johnny Day plays Leo. He’s a James Madison graduate who works out of D.C. He finds many levels to this young man’s character including his misguided self-assurance and his proud resistance to self-examination and taking responsibility. Day has made strong choices but methinks he doth resist too much. Humility comes to him very late in the process. An early example might be the Skype conversation he has with his adopted sister. Despite the pain we hear in the girl’s voice, Day seems to resist assuming responsibility.
Anne Michelle Forbes is a breath of fresh air in her one scene as Amanda. Quirky, fun, honestly sexual, culturally over-sensitive, she is a spunky enigma and just the type of girl Leo wouldn’t know how to handle. Ms. Forbes takes control of their scene and scores nicely.
Kaelie Madison Ukrop plays Bec with a sharpness and resolve that is slightly unattractive but totally appropriate for the role. She is disrespectful to Vera and very hard and a little cruel to Leo. She wont win any popularity contests. I think it’s very brave to allow yourself to be disliked. Ms. Ukrop does her job very well and that’s what’s important.
Rich Mason’s set with Elaina Riddell’s props and Lara Koplin’s scene painting create a small New York apartment that I recognize from my many years visiting older Jewish relatives in lower Manhattan. It’s a historical monument to Vera’s life spent there with her husband. I regret the theatre’s limitations would not allow a more spacious design suggesting a family once lived there. Nevertheless, the Theatre Gym space is what it is and the set is intelligent and evocative of their lives.
Elizabeth Weiss Hopper’s costumes were just as evocative of the period and each person’s status as you could wish for. I thought the musical choice odd using the same erratic theme between each scene. Other than one popular song in Jesse Senechal’s sound design, I thought there was room for a progressive feel to the music and sound that the repetitive music didn’t provide. I thought the lighting a little flat and thought I noticed several shadows in Michael Jarrett’s design.
Gary Hopper has sensitively weaved this tale giving full honor to the eccentricities of his story. He has elicited cohesive, meaningful and effective performances. He has imbued the play with a feel and a pitch and a rhythm that feels right. It feels true. That doesn’t happen by itself so I always credit the captain of the ship. Ask me aboard any time Captain Hopper!
In my opinion, Anna Johnson has shepherded the most successful season of any company in Richmond this past year. Equus, The Mountaintop and now 4000 Miles have all been superior productions. I very much look forward to their next season.
4000 Miles is playing now through May 21, 2016 at Theatre Gym at the Virginia Rep Center. You can pick up tickets here!
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