4000 Miles | St. Louis Rep Studio Theatre

play 4000-miles_754000 Miles comes very near to being memorable and engrossing, but playwright Amy Herzog backs off when she gets close to the bone.


play 4000-miles

I managed to keep one New Year’s resolution for 19 days, which may be a record, for me anyway. I’ve been hoping I can escape my slavish devotion to the quality of a script and not let flawed writing influence my reviews too much, but I’m afraid I’m about to go negative for that reason again. The cast and direction of a play may be good, but I sometimes can’t see the trees for the forest. Because of that tendency, I had a lot of problems with 4000 Miles, which opened at the Rep Studio Theatre this past week.

I read playwright Amy Herzog’s account of the relationship between a 21-year-old man and his 91-year-old grandmother and found it dull. But it had won Obie awards and, as I recall, respectable to good reviews in New York. The Artistic Director of the Rep saw it and wanted to produce it, with veteran director Jane Page at the helm. The grandson, Leo, is played by Dan McCabe, who was in The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the Rep’s grand-but-doomed experimental “Off-Ramp” series, which presented edgy and interesting works for grownups. The actress playing Grandma Vera, Rita Gardner, is known for originating the role of The Girl in The Fantasticks and has worked steadily since. The two women in supporting roles, Katie McClellan as Bec, Dan’s sort-of girlfriend (it’s complicated), and Lisa Helmi Johanson as Amanda, a potential one-night stand for him are fine, though Johanson plays Amanda’s drunk scene a bit too “big” for the intimate studio space.

I hoped that a good company could make this play into compelling theater, but that wasn’t the case. There were moments, of course, and some memorable scenes, such as Leo telling his grandmother a heartrending story about the death of his best friend in a tragic, but also ridiculous, accident. Herzog does have a way with black humor, and that’s a plus. A sense of mortality pervades the whole play. Leo hasn’t visited in the 10 years since his grandfather died. Vera herself has attended the funerals of all her closest friends, and she is feeling and showing her age by having trouble, as she puts it, “finding [her] words.” She has hearing aids and false teeth, both of which she is prone to misplacing. Shaky hands make it hard for her to use keys. Then, another death near the end of the play has an impact on both of them, so there is an overarching aura of sadness in Vera’s apartment. The bond the two develop as they ponder mortality across their 70-year age gap is both touching and touchy, as it would be.

And yet, there is the sense of absolutely nothing much happening. Leo has just ridden across country from Seattle to New York City on his bicycle. He arrives at Vera’s in the middle of the night and startles his tiny granny (think late-career Ruth Gordon, only not so loud). The two quickly negotiate their own spaces and fall into the pattern of longtime roommates; however, the balance of power is still with Vera as the elder and the one in charge of the space. The visit is only supposed to be for one night, but Leo stays on, partly because of unfinished business with Bec and maybe somewhat due to a letdown after the trip, but also out of the sense of stasis that pervades the whole play. We’re told Vera is a lifelong political progressive, a genuine “card-carrying communist,” which does cause a bit of trouble for Leo in one spot, but there is only passing interaction between the two on matters of public substance.

They do talk a lot about family, though, and theirs is somewhat unconventional in the way some members are related to each other. They love one another, but I do find it difficult to summon up much sympathy for a kid who won’t let his frantic mother know where he is, and a grandmother (though she says she feels guilty) who abets him. Furthermore, I am tired of audiences whooping it up—literally, in the part of the audience I was among—when an old person says dirty words or does anything else which is behavior expected only from younger people. As far as I’m concerned, those are cheap laughs, but I do fault the spectators more than the playwright for this adolescent behavior. The genuine humor comes during the quiet moments and the one broadly comic scene in the play which is between Leo and Amanda.

Vera’s Manhattan apartment is obviously located in a rent-controlled building, and it looks just like what we picture a grandmother’s place would. She has lots of old photos, books, and tchotchkes lying around. There is faded wallpaper and an overall sense of mustiness, as if real life ended there long ago. She does, however, have a laptop her family provided for her, but she doesn’t know how to use it. An amusing moment occurs when Leo jacks the neighbor’s Wi-Fi to Skype his sister. But it turns serious when she begs him to come home to St. Paul, a journey he prefers not to make for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The set is reminiscent of the 1950s house used for Clybourne Park (the previous Studio production) with dark woods and evocative lamplight. Robert Mark Morgan’s story about how he came up with the scenic design included in the program is interesting and worth a read. John Wylie and Rusty Wandall are responsible for lights and sound, respectively, and Jason Orlenko’s costumes stand out.

What bothers me most about 4000 Miles is that it comes very near to being memorable and engrossing, but Herzog backs off when she gets close to the bone, and that’s disappointing. And there’s my bottom line: I didn’t dislike the play as much as I was disappointed by it. | Andrea Braun

4000 Miles runs through Feb. 3, 2013, at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Emerson Studio Theater on the lower level of the building. Visit www.repstl.com for ticket and schedule information.

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