Stage Left review: 4000 Miles chock full of rewards

Belfry’s current staging is small gem of a family drama that’s both charming and sharp

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The winner of an Obie Award for best new American play, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles made a big critical splash after opening in 2011.

Now being revived by the Belfry Theatre, it’s an unassuming little family drama replete with tiny waves and delicate rivulets. Charming and sharply observed, 4000 Miles coaxes us into its world slowly, gently and beguilingly.

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The story is not exactly of the rip-roaring variety. The subject matter — a grandmother and her adult grandson spend a fractious few weeks together in her New York apartment — is far from fashionable or sexy. Yet considerable rewards are to be found within Herzog’s honed and nuanced dialogue.

Grandmother Vera, played by the excellent Brenda Robins, is a plain-speaking middle-class leftie living in an apartment filled with books, LPs and memories. While still vital, she’s burdened by the ills of old age: an arthritic gait and occasional difficulty remembering words.

The play commences with her 20ish grandson Leo (Nathan Howe) making an unexpected visit in the middle of the night. He’s a free spirit who has just finished a coast-to-coast cycling trip across America. Mission accomplished, Leo — who badly needs a bath — seems bewildered as to what his next move might be.

Secretly, Vera is thrilled to have Leo staying with her. They enjoy one another — and are, in many ways, similar. Both are loners who have difficulty maintaining relationships. Both are also strong-willed and opinionated, something that leads to arguments triggered by petty details. Leo bristles when Vera dismisses his girlfriend Bec (Lucy McNulty) as “chubby.” Vera angrily and erroneously blames Leo for breaking a faucet and pilfering her chequebook.

Herzog slips important details into her play dexterously, almost surreptitiously. We eventually find out a death has derailed Leo’s life path. We also learn about Vera’s difficult romantic past. All four characters continually reveal things — sometimes seemingly insignificant, sometimes profound — that surprise us.

The themes in 4000 Miles are weighty: the inevitability of death, the painful imperfectness of relationships (especially the challenge of authentic communication) and the essential loneliness of the human condition. Herzog leavens such seriousness with humour — including one funny scene with Leo bringing home a party girl, played by Julie Leung.

On Friday night, Robins’s performance as Vera was powerful and moving. Her sometimes blustery delivery (the actor threw out certain words almost like punches) suggested a layer of feistiness and stoicism concealing vulnerability. Robins revealed her character’s underlying hurt through the cracks in the veneer — sometimes with a pained look or an awkward movement, elsewhere with startling disclosures.

Her acting style contrasted nicely with Howe’s laid-back, naturalistic delivery as Leo. Tall and thin with a scruffy beard, the well-cast actor brought out Leo’s earnestness, immaturity and the sense of a man in search of himself.

Peter Hartwell’s set of a cream-wainscotted apartment is beautifully detailed with mid-century furniture, a vintage stereo and a turquoise rotary phone.

The power of 4000 Miles lies in Herzog’s ability to elegantly parse the messy nature of human relationships. She does so with grace and humanity. At the same time, she abstains from sentimentality, always looking at life — and death — with a clear eye.

Some might find this play to be slow moving. Directed by Anita Rochon, there seemed at times to be problems with pacing. A key and potentially climactic scene in which Vera and Leo chat about sex while smoking pot was disappointingly flat (for some reason it was very darkly lit, which didn’t help). The play’s final sequence was not only lacklustre, it seemed so tentative and unsatisfying one wondered whether the show had actually ended.

Overall, 4000 Miles is a small gem worth seeking out. Theatre-goers will revel in the subtlety and acuity of Herzog’s script as well as the grandness and richness of Robins’s performance.

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