Family Matters

By Connie Yeager

It’s the middle of the night when Leo arrives unannounced at his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment at the terminus of a cross-country trip, carrying far more weight than his bicycle gear. Leo’s youthful burden, along with his grandmother’s challenges of aging, connect them in ways both humorous and touching in Amy Herzog’s acclaimed play 4000 Miles. The intimate comedy-drama runs in the Playhouse’s Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre from Feb. 8 through March 9.

“I’ve loved this play since I saw it in New York,” says Playhouse Artistic Director Blake Robison, who will direct 4000 Miles. “It’s simple and honest. There are no tricks. It doesn’t play with theatrical form. It’s just a moving story about a 21-year-old guy and his 91-year-old grandmother helping each other in a time of need.”

Despite their 70-year age gap, a comradeship grows between Leo and Vera as they spend time together as two adults at different stages of life. Leo is running from recent events, while Vera is anchored somewhat in her past. There are things that he is trying to forget; meanwhile, she’s trying desperately to remember words and concepts that hover just past the edge of her memory. Both are on a journey — one at the brink of adulthood, the other toward her life’s end. While Leo and Vera initially appear to have little in common, they have much to teach each other. Dramatic elements of each of their stories unfold in layers — without undue sentimentality, yet with poignancy and heart.

For Robison, what makes 4000 Miles compelling is that “theirs is a relationship that you don’t see on stage very often. It’s unusual for kids to really know their grandparents these days, so the coming together of these two lonely souls is beautiful and touching.”

The grandparent/grandchild dynamic between Vera and Leo apparently provides for a better bond than the parent/child relationship of Vera and Leo’s mother, which is referenced but unseen in the play. Vera and Leo discover traits in common — her communist, activist past gets a slightly different spin in his self-proclaimed hippiedom — that have apparently been skipped or resisted by the generation in between. And while Leo may have the advantage of youth, his grandmother has a worldliness and big-city viewpoint that balance the equation of their deepening kinship.

4000 Miles premiered off-Broadway as a Steinberg New Works Program production in June 2011, presented by Lincoln Center Theatre/LCT3 in New York City. It then moved to New York’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in April 2012, garnering an Obie Award for Best New American Play. 4000 Miles was named Time magazine’s No. 1 Play or Musical of 2012 and was also a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “No one currently writing for the theater has a sharper grasp of character, or more sheer storytelling technique,” Time wrote of Herzog.

Herzog has included semi-biographical elements in 4000 Miles. Vera is inspired by her real-life grandmother Leepee Joseph, whom Herzog has described as “funny, dry, sassy and devastating.” The characters of Vera and Leo also appeared, in smaller roles, in Herzog’s play After the Revolution, which explored the radical leftist politics of her forebears. Herzog’s other plays include The Great God Pan and Belleville.

The cast for 4000 Miles includes veteran stage and television actress Rosemary Prinz as Vera Joseph, Robbie Tann as Leo Joseph-Connell, Adina Verson as Bec and Christine Lin as Amanda and Lily. The play’s creative team includes set designer James Kronzer, costume designer David Kay Mickelsen, lighting designer Matthew Richards and sound designer Matthew M. Nielson. Jenifer Morrow is the production stage manager.

For Robison, the biggest challenge of directing 4000 Miles is “keeping it honest. Acting these roles in the intimacy of the Shelterhouse requires relaxation, spontaneity and truth. You have to be willing to draw on your own experience — to share. I didn’t know my grandmothers very well — just the odd Christmas visit or special occasion. I expect there’s much I can learn from the characters of Leo and Vera.”

Leo and Vera discover a meaningful sense of family and companionship in the midst of negotiating the emotional hazards of life. Ultimately, says Robison, “It’s about an appreciation for the most important things: family, love, life and following your passions.”