To grandmother’s house we go in the subtly affecting 4000 Miles, the second half of Center Stage’s Amy Herzog Festival.
The first play, After the Revolution, set in 1999, delves into a proudly leftist clan’s politics, personal communication style and the family myths and stories they have invested their hearts and integrity in. 4000 Miles takes place 10 years later and centers on the same family, but concentrates on its matriarch, Vera Joseph (Lois Markle), who is 91 and still lives independently in the same Greenwich Village apartment she shared for decades with her late husband, Marxist firebrand Joe Joseph.
Who cannot love Vera for her Birkenstocks and sensible long denim skirts, her Scandinavian style furniture that was so en vogue among progressives in the 1950s and 60s (Daniel Zimmerman created the lovingly neutral décor and Eric Southern the dappled light of a city apartment at various times of the day and night), the rotary wall phone she stubbornly refuses to trade in for a cell, the Mac laptop that sits unused in the study, the protective plastic film still on the screen.
Her quiet, well-ordered life (she spends much of her time going to funerals for her rapidly diminishing circle of contemporaries) is interrupted by the 3 a.m. surprise arrival of her 21-year-old grandson Leo Joseph-Connell (Josh Tobin). Leo has just completed a cross-country bike ride, but this accomplishment bears little sense of the triumphant, due to a tragic occurrence on the trip.
He’s clearly a lost boy, roiling with issues and guilt and still doing that adolescent thing where you blame your parents, girlfriend, or pretty much anyone within spitting distance for your troubles. He tries to cover up his self-centeredness with the mellow-dude veneer of an eco-warrior, concerned about recycling, community gardens, the environment.
“Marx is cool,” Leo says, trying to cozy up Vera as a chip off the old block. Yet, one of the shrewd delights of Herzog’s play is its depiction of the differences between them, generationally and temperamentally.
Vera’s part of the let-it-all-hang-out generation, a lifelong activist who bluntly speaks her mind at all times. Add to that the privilege of old age, where you feel like you’ve earned the right to say whatever the hell you want, and you’ve got one pip of a character. Markle plays the role to the hilt, capturing Vera’s surety and ramrod backbone, as well as her lack of diplomacy, which she conveys with impeccable comic timing. But she also deftly captures Vera’s frailties, her problems with memory and dependence on routine.
Vera’s calm habits become rattled during Leo’s visit—although she finds herself growing reliant on her grandson’s presence. Not that he’s much help, especially in the beginning. He’s part of the Millennial generation—feeling entitled to $50 rock wall climbing classes when he’s broke, helping himself to his grandmother’s money and other perks because his helicopter parents raised him to continually expect such privilege and more.
For all his granola-crunching, touchy-feely mien, Leo’s a bit of a jerk and kudos to Herzog for writing such a slyly unsympathetic character and Tobin for not soft-pedaling the ickier aspects of his personality.
His inadequacies are revealed in his dealings with women—his angry befuddlement that his girlfriend Bec (a strong Lauren LaRocca) wants to break up, discounting her every feeling because togetherness is what HE wants. A potential hook-up with Amanda (the scene-stealing Jennifer Tsay) is a tipsy, silly-sexy vignette, but also shows Leo’s total disregard for a word she’s saying, so intent is he in getting what he wants.
There’s an unhealthy bond with his unseen sister and rage against his mother so actually, the gently bumping rhythm between Leo and his grandmother is without a doubt the best relationship he has with a female. You see that in their attempts to find a common ground, not easy since they are so different in what they want in life—Leo some answers, some direction, some stability; Vera a kind passage into death.
April 1- May 24
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1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
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Naturally, they clash, but ultimately come together, most memorably when they celebrate autumn solstice (Leo’s idea, of course) by getting royally stoned on the sofa. Relaxed and beaming a wide, sloppy smile, the years peel away and you see Vera as she must have been when Joe Joseph was alive and they were comrades and confidantes—beautiful, blurtingly honest, and self-confident.
In 4000 Miles, Herzog has taken the oft-old convention of the generation gap and created a ripe, rollicking character in Vera, a woman of tetchy wit and plainspoken truths.
4000 Miles by Amy Herzog . Directed by Lila Neugebauer . Featuring Lauren LaRocca, Lois Markle, Jennifer Tsay and Josh Tobin . Set design: Daniel Zimmerman . Costume design: Ásta Hostetter . Lighting design: Eric Southern . Sound design: Brandon Wolcott . Dramaturg: Catherine Maria Rodriguez . Stage Manager: Laura Smith . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.