a review of Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles at ACT, playing until February 10th

By Alexander Quionenes-Bangs

Photo Kevin Berne/Leo thinking
When the actors took the stage for their bows I was startled at how few there were - unlike so many large cast plays that are full of forgettable characters, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is about a few fully rendered, hard to pin down people and somehow that makes you feel as if you had been watching an entire city. We aren’t bathing in the radiance of extraordinary individuals or superstar actors, but instead get the opportunity to connect with people we might see everyday, people who have problems that might happen to us. The fate of the nation doesn’t ride on the shoulders of these characters, what happens to them has no national significance, and yet Herzog makes us see that their lives are significant as an Electra or Lear, and as knottily complex. That raises us, not to greatness, but to an appreciation of how we live.

The story is simple: Leo (Reggie Gowland) suddenly arrives at his Grandmother Vera’s apartment (Susan Blommaert). They clearly love each other, there is no cross-generational lack of respect, and Vera does her best to accommodate a young man who lives and behaves in ways she doesn’t quite understand. There’s a generation gap, but it’s a gentle one, born of different situations rather than different sensibilities. Gowland and Blommaert neither overplay nor underplay the conflict. It is what it is and Herzog, the director Mark Rucker and the actors find the right mix of normalcy, tension and pleasure in these early interchanges. Of course, there is more going underneath the surface than meets the eye, but for Herzog that’s not a dramatic stunt, but the truth of how we interact with each other everyday. There’s always more going on beneath the surface.

Photo Kevin Berne/Leo and Vera kind of understanding each other
Rucker wisely keeps the action light, focusing on the simple tension of Leo’s silence. Without being obvious this highlights our interests, what is left unsaid, and, more keenly and dramatically, Vera’s interests as well. I can’t think of many plays in which we are allowed to identify with the desires and interests of a Grandmother. They are always peripheral characters, comic relief, not quite real, but here both the audience and Vera are one and we both feel a need to pierce Leo’s reticence. But with Vera we take on the delicacy of an older person who hasn’t the energy to yell it out, but who has the wisdom to not hold anything back. She has lost the parent’s uncertainty and even in her diminished state manages to cut to the heart of what troubles her grandson. So Leo and Vera argue, but the arguments are never long, wheeling engagements—they rage awkwardly and sputter about as if they were happening live. For such a tight script everything feels as if you were spying on the apartment next to you, if you live in an apartment as I do.

Speaking of apartments, set designer Erik Flatmo (that’s a great, almost perfect name for a stage designer) crams an impressive amount of detail into Vera’s impossibly large Greenwich Village apartment. It creates a lack of movement that forces us to take in and understand Vera’s physical surroundings and then consign it to memory, so that we can focus on the conflict in front of us. While it is an admittedly pretty apartment, I was confused as to why Rucker chose to have the lights linger on the set for several beats at the end of most scenes. Given the rhythms of the play, it seems a misstep in an otherwise beautifully timed production. There’s one awkward moment where the action skips forward about a week and it takes a while to realize it. Perhaps Rucker was trying to account for passages of time in the lighting, but it didn’t quite work.

My only other issue is with Herzog’s tendency to give almost all of the witty retorts and laugh lines to Vera. While obviously not intentional, they do slightly reduce the complexity of an otherwise fascinating character. I guess this is a case of less is more. This old dramatic chestnut also holds for the revelation of Leo’s secret. Although we want to know what it is, in the end perhaps Herzog reveals too much. I’ll leave it for you to decide that, but for me the most powerful parts of Leo’s eventual revelation are not the facts but his desire to speak to Vera. We understand what he needs and what she can provide (ironically much, much more than a girlfriend) and everything else would be better if it were left to the imagination.
Photo Kevin Berne/Who says the young understand the young?
Ultimately these are minor points and don’t interfere with the force of this fine play. 4000 Miles is incredibly honest about how we hurt ourselves and how other people can help us. It doesn’t try to impart a moral, nor does it try to impart any extreme life-changing epiphany. There are no ah-ha moments. What it does offer is people we can’t pin down. Leo is rude and capable of childlike wonder and Vera is world wise and decently oblivious. Herzog shows us what might happen when those two people meet and that’s it, which is more than enough.

For tickets: or call (415) 749-2228

Photo Kevin Berne/Reconciliation?

©CCA Arts Review and Alexander Quionones-Bangs

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