Story: Vera is awakened in the dead of night by a loud pounding on her Greenwich Village apartment door. The unexpected visitor is her 21-year-old grandson Leo, who is filthy and smells from too many days away from soap and shower.
Leo has been cycling across the country from Seattle to New York City, a journey of some 4,000 miles. His friend Micah had been his companion at the start but did not complete the adventure. Thus, Leo shows up alone at the abode of his 91-year-old grandmother.
Like Vera, a widow and outspoken leftist who still proudly keeps communist literature on her living room coffee table, Leo is brash, direct and driven by his political beliefs. That defiant personality, though, has its downside. He’s a bit obsessed with Bec, his girlfriend who views their strained relationship differently.
Leo’s brief visit turns in to a longer stay, giving him and his grandmother plenty of time to talk about their extended family as well as their individual views on the world. It’s a journey of discovery for both, despite their chronological chasm.
Highlights: Amy Herzog is an award-winning playwright and the granddaughter of a woman very much like Vera, the fiercely independent protagonist of 4000 Miles. Herzog’s stepfather was blacklisted by the federal government for his communist leanings in the 1940s and ‘50s, and like Vera her own grandmother Leepe was married twice. Herzog adapted her own background as the catalyst for an earlier work, After the Revolution, which featured Vera in a smaller role.
Other Info: Herzog uses her own family as a springboard for the characters and plot of 4000 Miles, which debuted in 2011 as part of Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 programming initiative. The one-act, 90-minute work veers between comedy and drama, and The Rep’s presentation directed by Jane Page features a sparkling performance by Rita Gardner as the defiantly proud nonogenarian.
Gardner is a delight, superb at showing Vera brimming with life and sharp opinions as well as a capacity to love that includes a disappointing daughter and a foul-mouthed blowhard of a grandson.
Unfortunately, the production is hampered by the character of Leo. As portrayed by Dan McCabe, Leo is rude, immature, self-centered, sexually misguided and generally an all-around jerk. Whether that’s Page’s interpretation, McCabe’s approach or Herzog’s writing, the result is a hugely unsympathetic character.
Leo is democratic, though: He abuses all three women in the play, whether it’s his own grandmother he’s telling to “shut up” while simultaneously and brashly asking for money; Bec, his one-time girlfriend, whose point of view Leo scarcely considers; or Amanda, a vacuous, self-described slut he brings back to Vera’s apartment.
McCabe is saddled with the unenviable predicament of making Leo somewhat likable, something at which he failed for me. Leo’s stunning lack of respect for others makes him a poor choice for a major character and accentuates noticeable problems with Herzog’s script.
Katie McClellan is OK as Bec, who certainly has her own issues, including a snippy, morose tendency with Vera, and Lisa Helmi Johanson enlivens the proceedings in her one scene as the wealthy but dippy young woman Leo meets beyond Vera’s multi-lock front door.
Herzog divides her work into several brief scenes, which allows for a natural development of dialogue between grandson and grandmother, and between people of varying ages who engage in honest, open and frank discussions, even if Leo goofily considers communism the “recycling” fad of a bygone era.
Robert Mark Morgan’s scenic design combines a depth and thorough attention to detail that brings Vera’s modest and personality-filled apartment to life. It fills the intimate Studio Theatre space with lots of books, an old-fashioned phone and a few judiciously placed photos that perhaps refer to Vera’s unseen daughter and Leo’s mother, a source of sadness or irritation, respectively, that is never quite satisfactorily explored.
The set is handsomely lit by John Wylie to convey various times of the day, and complemented by Rusty Wandall’s plaintive sound design that says a lot in efficient fashion. Jason Orlenko’s costumes are a fitting match for each of the characters.
While her characters, apart from Vera, seem superficial and shallow, there’s definitely an undercurrent of smart, talented craftsmanship evident in Herzog’s prose. The failure to build sympathy or empathy, however, leaves 4000 Miles simply a long journey into meaninglessness.
Play: 4000 Miles
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Emerson Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through February 3
Tickets: $47-$60; contact 968-4925 or repstl.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.