‘4000 Miles’ at Northlight: To Grandmother’s house he goes, and she’s worth the long ride
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Leo crashes Vera’s apartment in the middle of the night, a sort of grown up waif, lost to the world, clutching the bicycle he has just ridden 4,000 miles from the Northwest to New York’s East Village. They’re a lot alike, Leo and Vera, rebels with or without cause – except that she’s his grandma.
Not only does that make Vera more fascinating and funnier in Amy Herzog’s play “4000 Miles,” but as this quasi-existential opus unfolds at Northlight Theatre, Mary Ann Thebus’ savvy, frank, altogether delightful performance provides something real and lasting to take away from a semi-developed serio-comedy.
I think this play is supposed to be about twentysomething Leo (Josh Salt), who has pedaled across the country to get away from a mother he can’t stand and to find himself. But the more insightful, clever and picturesque writing in “4000 Miles” centers on his grandma, a free-thinking old political lefty who has bent to the infirmities of age without conceding any of her spunk.
Thebus’ zestful, wry Vera – and Herzog’s unfailingly wise characterization – affords a warm reminder that life is a continuum and nobody enters this world at age 60 or 70 or 80. It’s her love of life, her unquenchable spirit that Vera wears on her sleeve. She says plain things plainly, makes herself scarce when Leo brings a girl home at night and merrily kicks back with him to get high on some weed.
But Vera also knows her days are growing short, and so she has an arrangement with a likewise superannuated lady friend in the apartment across the hall. They regularly telephone each other, mostly to fight but more important with the understanding that if one of them doesn’t respond (or call when it’s her turn), the other will know to look in and, should circumstances require, make sure the body is removed before, well, whatever.
When Leo shows up unannounced at Vera’s place – appointed in comfortable, well-worn detail by designer Jack Magaw — he’s not only 4,000 miles from home but also light years from maturity, self-centered and purposeless. The problem with this character is not that he is shallow, but that Herzog’s portrait feels two dimensional: rant and whine. One waits in vain for inflection, for psychological complexity – until a revelation about Leo’s long bike ride helps to explain his numbness. Yet even then, the emotion is more described, more rationalized, than expressed.
Perhaps neither director Kimberly Senior nor actor Salt could find enough substance in Leo to create an engaging young man, especially in the vibrant light of Vera and Thebus’ show-stealing performance. But the director has just as much difficulty extracting vitality from the dull confrontational exchanges between Leo and his ex-girlfriend Bec (Caroline Neff). Leo’s hot date with a new girl (Emjoy Gavino) is at least amusing in its awkwardness.
Yet Leo does experience an epiphany, and it is plausible, indeed touching, as the playwright pulls loose strands together in a final dramatic flourish. It’s also a bit too little and too late to make “4000 Miles” click.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Northlight Theatre’s 2013-14 season: Details at ChicagoOntheAisle.com