Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through Oct. 20
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In the program notes for the Chicago premiere of “4000 Miles” at Northlight Theatre, playwright Amy Herzog explains that Vera Joseph, the feisty octogenarian grandmother in whose Greenwich Village apartment the 100-minute one-act takes place, is modeled on her own beloved grandmother (who died this year at 96), while Leo Joseph-Connell, the 21-year-old “hippie” grandson who visits her at the end of a cross-country bike trip during which he’s suffered a devastating loss, is based on a cousin whose friend died in a rafting accident a couple of years ago. A third autobiographical element is the culture clash Herzog experienced when she arrived in New York City after her own two-month bike ride across the U.S. the summer after she graduated from college.
Her comments are clues to the play’s strengths — and weaknesses. Almost guaranteed to evoke an emotional response from parents who’ve had or have troubled relationships with their adult children, at its best “4000 Miles” paints a canny portrait of the intergenerational rapport the develops between Vera, an unreconstructed lefty living in relative isolation, and Leo, an outdoorsy would-be transcendentalist temporarily escaping from real life. During his three or four weeks at Vera’s, Leo subtly shifts from being a self-absorbed youth licking his wounds after his best friend’s death in a horrible freak accident and his girlfriend Bec’s (Caroline Neff) breaking up with him to a responsible person who takes control of his life, gets a job and reaches out to help a stranger. Vera, who is coping with the ills of aging like misplacing her checkbook and forgetting the words for things, offers him a place to stay and more-or-less unconditional acceptance and in return gets the human companionship mostly missing from her life.
Partly because the incremental changes come in scenes that sometimes meander and sometimes seem like set pieces (Bec’s breakup with Leo, his attempted one-night stand with fashionista art student Amanda, broadly portrayed by Emjoy Gavino), the evening’s success depends entirely on the lead actors and the believability of their interaction. Under Kimberly Senior’s careful direction, Mary Ann Thebus wears the role of Vera (which she also played in Herzog’s “After the Revolution” at Next Theatre) like a comfortable old glove, gingerly padding around her apartment (appropriately designed by Jack Magaw to look like a 1960s relic), slyly reminiscing about past loves, discussing politics without going into too much detail, spouting unsolicited and sometimes unwelcome opinions and providing support when needed. Josh Salt’s Leo looks and acts like a latter-day hippie, right down to the scruffy beard and lack of direction or a life plan beyond wanting to tackle a climbing wall and dip his bike’s wheels in the Atlantic to symbolize the completion of his trip.
But while it’s reasonably interesting to watch the interplay of these characters, even if it is rather predictable, “4000 Miles” lacks a enough of a dramatic arc to make it compelling. Very little actually happens, and there just isn’t enough tension to completely hold our attention.
To make matters worse, too much time is devoted to discussing characters we never meet but who are crucial to the story. We hear a lot from both Vera and Leo about his mother, Jane, and glean that his difficulties with her are the reason he hasn’t gone home to Minnesota, but we never find out exactly why he holds her in such contempt, beyond a kind of general clash of lifestyles. We also know he loves his adopted sister, with whom he has a conversation on Skype, but his ambivalent feelings and inability to help her are sketchily drawn. The third unseen person in Leo’s life is Micah, the dead friend he idolized, and in a late-in-the-evening confession to Vera — delivered without a lead-in to explain his reason for speaking about it at this specific time — he recounts the accident in detail, including the totally improbable appearance by a public relations person. For her part, Vera trots out tales of her two dead husbands and the “pain in the ass” old neighbor with whom she nonetheless has an agreement to call each other every night.
All in all, I think that “4000 Miles” has central characters we could care about but it needs more pruning and shaping to bring them into sharper focus. If Bec and Amanda are going to appear, they should be fully drawn rather than window dressing, and the unseen people should be pared to a minimum and their purpose clarified.