4000 Miles

By Amy HerzogNorthlight theatre

Directed by Kimberly Senior,

at Northlight Theatre, Skokie

Very good drama falls just short of greatness

         

          Sometimes, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. At other times, it is less. The latter is the case with the Chicago Premiere of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles. The individual parts — especially the two main character depictions — are splendid.  But when they are brought together, and lesser characters are added to the mix, something is missing. Might it be conflict?

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          Herzog drew from her own family members for inspiration, stating that elderly Vera Joseph is based on her feisty grandmother, Leepee Joseph– whom she describes as funny, dry, sassy and devastating at 93. Her struggling, hippie grandson Leo is based on a young cousin who –like Leo — had faced the traumatic loss of a dear friend.

          As the plot unfolds, tired, muddy Leo (Josh Salt) arrives, unannounced, at the home of his grandmother (Mary Ann Thebus), after bicycling from Seattle to New York. This completes a trip he had begun with his best friend, Micah, who was killed en route. A poignant relationship between Grandmother and Grandson ebbs and flows as they adapt to each other. This cross-country, cross-generational relationship is riveting, with both actors fleshing out the characters with skill and empathy. It is impossible not to identify with the hard-of-hearing, earnest, communist-inclined grandmother. The actors provide excellent performances in an uneven script.

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          Perhaps the very best scene — and certainly the most human and ironic one — is where Leo pours out the story of how his friend died, only to learn that Vera, who had neglected to put in her hearing aids, heard only part of the saga and didn’t want to interrupt him.

          Herzog introduces five others, but we meet only two of them: girlfriend Bec (Caroline Neff) and sex pistol Amanda (Emjoy Gavino). Important but unseen are Leo’s neurotic mother, his adopted, troubled sister, and the old lady who lives across the hall from Grandma and exchanges nightly phone calls to make sure they are both still alive.  Leo’s interactions with these people shape his coming-of age story as surely as that with his grandmother.

          Kudos to Herzog for her unity of place — we never leave grandma’s apartment. However, when the author uses dialogue to explain a time gap occurring outside the apartment near the play’s end, this change of focus weakens the plot.        

          Herzog’s 4000 Miles is understated. Nothing much happens, and sometimes the hour and forty minutes, without intermission, drag. In spite of these caveats, what makes the play worth recommending is the vital character of Vera who with utter frankness reveals outrageous thoughts and actions as she explores her life and life choices. This doyen transcends both her immediate family and the play itself.

Recommended

Beverly Friend, Ph.D.

Member ATC

Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL,  847-673-6300 www.northlight.org, Tickets $25-$75, 7:30 pm Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1 p.m. Wednesdays , 8 pm Fridays, 2:30 pm Saturdays and Sundays, 8 pm Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through  October 20. Running time one hour and forty minutes without intermission.