Anyone longing to see an intergenerational relationship depicted in all its potential richness, a family drama that grips without resorting to soap opera melodramatics, and an elderly character not made the butt of the joke need drive a mere six minutes east of Pasadena’s A Noise Within where the Sierra Madre Playhouse is presenting its absolutely splendid Los Angeles Premiere production of Amy Herzog’s Obie-winning dramedy—and 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist—4000 Miles.
Herzog’s protagonists are 91-year-old Vera (Mimi Cozzens) and 21-year-old Leo (Christian Prentice), a grandmother and grandson seven decades apart in age who will, over the course of 4000 Miles’ several-month time span, change each other’s lives in relatively minor but nonetheless significant ways. Neither is perfect, and Herzog presents them warts and all, but by the time Leo is ready to head back on his way after an extended visit with Granny, you will likely have fallen a bit in love with both.
4000 Miles starts quietly, with Leo’s late-night arrival at Vera’s memorabilia-filled Greenwich Village apartment, bicycle in tow. We learn that he has biked all the way from Seattle, and that if it was a “we” who set off on the cross-country trek, it is an “I” who has arrived in New York … and we surmise that something bad, something really bad, must have happened along the way.
We know immediately that Vera can see through Leo’s “Everything’s fine” bravado, though it’s not until the following morning that a certain name gets mentioned, and then only twice, briefly in passing, first when Leo tells his grandmother, “Micah never sent an email. His whole life, which was stubborn as shit, but you have to admire it,” and later, when he hints at his reason for coming to New York. “It was to finish something I started,” Leo explains. “Micah and I started something. I finished it. That’s it.”
A lesser playwright might feel tempted to reveal all within the first few minutes. Herzog parses out pieces of information and allows us to string them together little by little, bit by bit.
We learn early on of Grandma Vera’s pro-peace, pro-Cuba politics (once a Marxist, she is still very much a progressive) and that her left-leanings have been a thorn in her relationship with Leo’s mother Jane, though Leo (who won’t accept an offered piece of fruit because there is “no such thing as a local banana”) seems pretty much on the same leftist page as his grandmother, and not on any better terms with Jane than Vera is.
We learn too that Leo’s New York City girlfriend has told him that she needs to “do some thinking,” which Leo says he respects because, as he puts it, “thinking is good,” though we sense that this was not the welcome he was expecting upon arriving on her doorstep.
And we get a sense of what kind of a woman Vera is, still feisty at ninety-one, still fairly sure of foot, at least on her home turf, though her frequent use of “whadayacallit” as an all-purpose noun, verb, or adjective bears witness to the passing of time, and an intellectual’s frustration at losing her way with words.
Later scenes fill in blanks, though not all of them, which is fine, since unlike a TV sitcom, 4000 Miles doesn’t need to tie up all its threads.
We do get to meet Leo’s girlfriend Bec (Alexandra Wright), whose absence on his cross-country bike trek still rankles, and whose attitude towards a partner caught cheating turns out to be considerably less open-minded than Vera’s was during her marriage to Leo’s grandfather.
We also meet Amanda (Susane Lee), a nineteen-year-old Chinese-American coed Leo brings back to Grandma’s for a late-night bit of hanky-panky that doesn’t quite turn out as hoped for once the topic of Vera’s Marxist past comes up.
And over the course of the several months of Leo’s visit, we watch as a grandmother’s love becomes a force of healing, of reconciliation, and of growth.
Sierra Madre Playhouse Artistic Director Christian Lebano deserves double kudos, first for the coup represented by securing the Los Angeles Premiere rights to this Pulitzer Prize finalist, originally seen on the West Coast just last November at South Coast Repertory.
More significantly for L.A. audiences, Lebano’s assured direction and the exceptional performances he has elicited from his cast of four make 4000 Miles a must-see.
Stage-and-screen vet Cozzens is perfectly wonderful as Vera, a nonagenarian whose grasp of language may not be what it used to be but whose life force remains as strong and vital as ever. Playing the role with subtlety and spice, Cozzens makes us believe in both Vera’s indomitable strengths and the weaknesses old age has wrought.
Prentice matches his leading lady every step of the way as Vera’s alternately charming/bratty grandson, superb both in Leo’s silences and in his spoken words, and the onstage chemistry between grandson and grandmother is so palpable, you’d swear there was a lifetime of memories between the two actors.
A captivating Wright does engaging, deeply felt work as Bec, an independent woman fallen out of love with someone whose constant disappointment in her she can no longer take.
Last but not least is Lee’s deliciously zany comedic turn as a New York City girl smitten with a “real live mountain man” till his grandmother’s politics makes her unsure if she can “get it on in a communist’s apartment.”
As always, the Sierra Madre Playhouse offers L.A. audiences the almost unheard of opportunity to see a 99-seat-plan production on a classic proscenium stage (think the Pasadena Playhouse in miniature), and scenic designer John Vertrees’ paraphernalia-laden Manhattan apartment has the attention to detail you’d expect in a much larger regional house thanks to Olivia O’Neill’s multitude of pitch-perfect props. (The mid-century Danish-modern furniture provided by Atomic Threshold is a gorgeous bonus.)
Lighting designer Pablo Santiago deserves high marks as well, particularly for a late-night sequence lit entirely in silhouette that helps make Prentice’s gut-wrenching delivery of Leo’s key monolog even more affecting.
Kristen Kopp’s costumes are character-perfect and Jonathan Beard’s original music links scenes to perfection, aided by Barry Schwam’s topnotch sound design.
Additional credit goes to stage manager Sarah Poor, assistant stage manager Wysper Erigio, technical director Ben Womick, and particularly to Lisa Wasserman for her background-providing lobby exhibit.
In fact, my only criticism is a tiny one. Though Herzog has set her play in 2007, the program gives its timeframe as September 2014, thereby making Vera a whopping 98 instead of the 91 she is supposed to be if the rest of her life’s timeline is to be believed.
4000 Miles is produced by Estelle Campbell, Lebano, and Sherrie Lofton.
That Amy Herzog’s award-winning off-Broadway hit is making its L.A. debut at the Sierra Madre Playhouse provides additional proof (for those still in need of it) that the San Gabriel Valley landmark has over the past few years become one of our finest 99-seat houses.
A mere 2.4 mile drive from Pasadena’s A Noise Within, the Sierra Madre Playhouse is indeed just a hop, skip, and jump away, a few-minutes-extra drive that any lover of quality theater will want to make, particularly with a play and production as fine as 4000 Miles lighting up its stage.
Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.
October 11, 2014
Photos: Gina Long