Sometimes, odd couples make the perfect pairings, such is the case in Amy Herzog’s Obie Award-winning play 4000 Miles (finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Time Magazine ‘s #1 Play or Musical of 2012), which debuted as the second half of a rotating repertory cycle at Baltimore’s CENTERSTAGE.
Set 10 years After the Revolution, as part of the “Amy Herzog Festival Performances,” 91-year-old grandmother Vera Joseph (Lois Markle) takes center stage when, after a tragic loss on a cross-country bike trip, her 21-year-old neo-hippie, free-spirited grandson Leo (Josh Tobin) unexpectedly shows up at her Greenwich Village apartment in the wee hours of the night. While Leo first insists that he will not be staying, Vera orders that he at least stay the night, get a good breakfast in the morning and shower before climbing into the guest bed. Before either of them realizes it, Leo has settled in and stayed for several weeks, and the pair eventually grows closer as they learn more about one another.
Directed by Princess Grace Award recipient and Herzog’s close friend Lila Neugebauer, featuring a talented four-member ensemble, 4000 Miles touches upon universally identifiable themes of death, growing old, heartbreak and generational gaps. As she did in After the Revolution, Neugebauer elicits top flight performances out of the cast, amplifying Herzog’s finely-honed script, fortified with smart dialogue, crafts constant channels for comedic relief — much of which was supplied by Markle’s Grandma Vera.
Despite being 91, Vera is, aside from an intermittent senior moment, as sharp as a tack, and her droll and brutally honest observations reaped roars of belly laughter throughout the 100-minute production. Markle adroitly commanded and underscored every scene with her artful ability to pivot from heart-wrenching memory to wry, whimsical assertion. This counterbalance allowed for otherwise weighty issues to be effectively presented in an engaging and entertaining manner perceptively polished with Markle’s skillful comedic timing and fastidious line delivery and knowing sideways glances.
Together, Markle and Tobin’s Vera and Leo make an outstanding team, permeating the theater with their characters’ distinctively robust personalities, which at times overlapped and, at other times, appeared completely at odds. Their authenticity, in what would be otherwise mundane everyday interactions, peppered with spirited visits from Leo’s ex-girlfriend, Bec (Lauren LaRocca), as well as an inopportune one-night stand with alluring Amanda (hilariously played by Jennifer Tsay), was amusingly absorbing, and that truly allowed the audience to study and appreciate the steadily evolving relationship between the 21-year-old and the 91-year-old.
One of the most moving moments in the play was when Leo and Vera were sitting up late one night, and he finally opened up and shared with her the story of how his close friend died before his eyes on their cross-country biking trip. As Leo told the agonizing story, amidst audible gasps budding from the audience – but when he finished, Vera responded with, “I didn’t have my hearing aid in,” resulting in a wholehearted wave of laughter from the audience and the most felicitous form of cathartic cleansing for the scene.
The idiosyncratic personalities of the characters were complimented by Daniel Zimmerman’s scrupulous set design and Eric Southern’s masterful lighting effects. The entire show took place in Vera’s apartment, which had warm, rich accents, tons of books and knick-knacks, even an old-school rotary telephone, ornamenting the walls and free surfaces. The apartment suggested that Vera had lived a long life teeming with memories and treasures that she continued to carry with her. The cozy, detailed apartment set the tone of the play, and of Leo and Vera’s relationship, seamlessly.
Precisely proportioned with perplexing pathos and pragmatic humor, CENTERSTAGE’s 4000 Miles offers a wonderfully witty and deeply engrossing play that takes theatergoers on an entertaining, emotional journey, gently reminding us that life, much like 4000 Miles, can pass by in a flash and to enjoy every facet of the ride.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.