Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles at The Studio Theatre opens with an unexpected reunion between Vera, a leftist in her eighties played by Tana Hicken, and her grandson Leo (Grant Harrison), a twenty-something who came to New York from St. Paul on his bicycle. The two are estranged, not having seen each other since Vera’s husband Joe’s funeral a couple of years ago. As the scene progresses, we feel each character’s comfort in the other, though Leo constantly refers to his grandmother as Vera. On a base level, they get each other. We learn that something happened to Leo’s friend Micah while they were on their trip, but we don’t know what exactly. We also learn that Leo and his girlfriend Bec (Heather Haney), are on rocky terms. All of these unanswered questions, and more, are answered as the following scenes unfold, but the silver lining of the scene hits you unaware when Leo turns to Vera and says, “Goodnight, Grandma.” The tenderness in his voice, and her warmth in her reaction to being called grandma are enough to melt your heart.
This play is expertly crafted, with the perfect balance of much humor and sentimentality. Though generations apart, Leo and Vera relate to each other on a fundamental level. They find what they are looking for at this moment in time in each other, and neither of them sees it coming. The balance struck between Vera not understanding current technology and Leo not understanding the ways of the world is brilliant, because if that made up the entire play, these two would be at odds with each other far more than they would be connecting with each other. The play achieves its greatest success in the chemistry between Tana Hicken and Grant Harrison.
Tana Hicken, a theatre veteran in her own right, and Grant Harrison, a young working actor, both breathe a fresh life into the grandmother/grandson relationship. Their reactions to each other are absolutely priceless, and each is as alive in moments of dialogue as in moments of silence. Hicken plays with the comedy of various situations with a prowess that comes from years on the stage, but the true beauty of this performance is in her delicate adjustments of subtext, especially in her scenes with Bec. Harrison not only keeps up with his accomplished scene partner, but wholeheartedly matches her energy and investment in every scene. He is as adept at playing moments of comedy, at the expense of Vera’s age or inability to grasp various contemporary situations, as he is in moments of bearing his soul or admitting something to himself, or others, that he hasn’t fully grasped. I could watch this duo on stage for hours and still ask for more. They bring a nuance and vitality to the somewhat tired notion of roommate comedies.
The supporting characters in this play are solid, and bring a cadence and perspective that is unheard of until their character speaks her mind. We hear so much about Bec before her character’s entrance, both from Leo and Vera, that we have a vivid picture of her in our minds even before she steps foot onstage. Heather Haney’s portrayal of Bec lived up to my expectations. Haney’s performance is layered and the way she traverses the subtle terrain of her character’s arc is beautiful. Annie Chang’s performance as Amanda, Leo’s almost conquest he brings back to Vera’s apartment, is both hilarious and grounded in something real and deep. This character bounces back and forth between poignant and aloof, and Chang’s efficient balance of the two is inspired.
Joy Zinoman’s direction of this phenomenal play and expert cast of actors is simply organic. The rhythm of the play is steady and constant, like a kite flying on a mild spring afternoon. The characters are rich, substantive people, grounded in their own version of reality. Each scene is like an intricate piece of a puzzle, and when it ends, you wish there were more pieces to put together. I applaud her rhythmic punctuation of the key moments of each scene. The gradual rise to and easy fall from each of these moments make the audience’s journey smooth sailing, while we still feel the various emotions deeply and personally.
The technical elements of this production elevate the work, and provide gorgeous depth to the work of the playwright and the actors. Russell Metheny’s set design is perfection. I was aware of the type of person who would reside in this apartment before the play even began, and found myself enjoying the many built-in bookshelves and easy flow of the apartment. Helen Huang’s costume design encompasses each character in fun ways, not always going for the obvious, and more often than not highlighting interesting character quirks along the way.
Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting design highlights both intimate and more lighthearted moments with the same level of crisp clarity. My favorite technical element was the original music and sound design of Lindsay Jones. The music between scenes is gorgeous. The passion in each note and ability to highlight the key emotion of the scene preceding it demanded I stay in the moment, even in the blackouts between scenes. This music would definitely score the independent film version of this play, without a doubt. The props design by Deb Thomas is detailed and, again, allowed me to know who these characters were by the things they owned.
I found 4000 Miles to be equal parts sentimental and rollicking good time. The memory of seeing this play and emotions that surfaced for me as a result of the play will be with me for a long time.
With an amazing cast of fascinating actors, expert direction, and beautifully executed technical elements, what more could you want in an afternoon or evening of theatre than The Studio Theatre’s 4000 Miles?
Running Time: Ninety minutes, with no intermission.
4000 Miles plays through April 28, 2013, in the Mead Theatre at The Studio Theatre – 1501 14th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.