Early on we learn that Leo started his journey accompanied by his best friend Micah, but along the way Micah was killed and Leo continued alone. In fact, he has been incommunicado with family and friends from the point of Micah's death until ringing Vera's buzzer. Leo's self-imposed isolation has been a source of grave worry and anger for his family, as well as for his girlfriend Bec, who recently moved to New York to attend school.
We learn that Bec wants to end her relationship with Leo, a decision she made before his disappearing act, though that act of self-absorption did not help his case any. Further, Leo adamantly wants to avoid any contact with his mother, making Vera promise not to tell her of his whereabouts. We also learn that Leo has a close relationship with his sister Lily, though dynamics between them is also is a source of concern.
For her part, Vera seems quite comfortable in the role of an elder who has seen everything and accepts life at face value, determined to keep on keeping on for as long as she is able. She has no qualms about asking Leo if he had any peculiar sexual episodes on his cross-country trek, or describing Bec as "that chubby girl." At age 90, she is still very independent, even as she attends the funerals of the last of the group of her fellow-progressives, noting that she is the only one left. She takes great pride in her left-wing activist past, though little is said about actual causes to which she was dedicated. Still, she and Leo see their radical liberal perspectives as a common bond, one which leapt over his mother.
Playwright Herzog has created two fully fleshed, real characters in Leo and Vera. In this she is greatly aided by the performances given by Gabriel Murphy (Leo) and Linda Kelsey (Vera). Leo has the affliction common to his age of over-thinking and attaching cosmic meaning to his every move. When he and Micah set out from Seattle, he tells Vera, they headed east as a statement against the manifest-destiny mindedness of America's westward-ho pioneers. He adds that, since they were starting out in Seattle, they really didn't have much choice but to head east ... but his need for his actions to make a statement trumps that simple truth. He is a muddle of half-measure political correctnesshe turns down a banana offered by Vera because the airplane fuel used to deliver bananas to New York is bad for the environment, but has no such qualms accepting coffee the next morning. The hunched posture and sing-song vocal quality of Mr. Murphy's Leo are evidence that he is not yet fully formed, trying to make sense of tragedy without the adult tools needed for the job. At times he stares out the windows of his grandmother's spacious apartment, looking truly lost, gazing out upon the world.
Ms. Kelsey's Vera moves with the stiffly labored grace of someone who will not let her aging body get the better of her, taking the time she needs, emitting groans and sighs to signify the effort it takes to keep movingbut clearly with no intention of staying still. Vera repeatedly has trouble calling forth the words she means to speak ... and declares this as the hardest thing about aging. Yet, without always having just the right word, she always makes herself totally clear. Ms. Kelsey communicates Vera's thoughts and feelings with gestures, vocal tone, the pacing of her speech, as if the holistic expression of a long-lived life packs greater force than any given word.
Watching the genuineness of these two characters, and the chord of familial love that connects them, provides great pleasure. Knowing that in the end Leo has benefited from his respite, and is able to move forward, is gratifying. That makes it somewhat disappointing that much in 4000 Miles seems unexplained, unresolved, or unconnected. We never find out the real source of Leo's revulsion for his mother. For most of the play we are guessing how Micah died; when we finally learn how it happens, it is anti-climactic: tragic, yes of course, but not startling. Leo's response, his taking off as a solitary bicyclist, makes no more sense after we learn the truth of Micah's death than it did before. The appearance of Amanda, a would-be one night fling for Leo, is energizing (largely due to Joann Oudekerk's lively performance in the role), but doesn't move the story in any direction, and Bec's reappearance at the end of the play seems like a shot out of the blue.
In addition to Ms. Kelsey, Mr. Murphy and Ms. Oudekerk, the cast includes Becca Hart as Bec. Ms. Hart ably conveys the difficulty with which Bec holds her resolve to part ways with Leo, even if we never fully understand what transpired between them to lead to that end. Elizabeth Efteland provides sisterly concern as the voice of Lily, who is unseen, but with whom he has an on-line conversation.
This production has excellent design work. Vera's apartment designed by Rick Polenek is appropriately spacious, an old-school rent-controlled unit she could never afford at today's market rates, and wittily cluttered with books and remembrances of her long life. The two file cabinets serving as end tables beside the sofa are a brilliant touch. Ben Olsen's costume designs (with assist from Aaron Chvatal) perfectly captures the frumpy dignity with which Vera is living her waning years, as well as the disheveled, oversized garb in which Leo retreats. Michael P. Kittel's lighting beautifully depicts dawn spreading through the windows, giving each new day a sense of hope that there may be a turning point ahead.
4000 Miles would be a more compelling play if there were greater efforts to explain the causes of Leo's angst. Fortunately, the strong main characters and the simple journey of a young man who fears taking responsibility for his life and relationships crossing the threshold of moving forward provides satisfaction enough to make the play worth seeing, especially with Ms. Kelsey and Mr. Murphy's strong performances.
4000 Miles continues at Park Square Theatre's Boss Stage through December 21, 2014. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets from $38.00 – 58.00; under 30, $19.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org
Writer: Amy Herzog; Director: Gary Gisselman; Scenic Designer: Rick Polenek; Assistant Scenic Designer: Ben Olsen; Costume Designer: Aaron Chvatal; Lighting Designer: Michael P. KIttel; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Designer: Kellie Larson; Assistant Director: Samuel Fiorillo; Stage Manager: Kristy Goebel
Cast: Elizabeth Efteland (voice of Lily), Becca Hart (Bec), Linda Kelsey (Vera Joseph), Gabriel Murphy (Leo Joseph-Connell), Joann Oudekerk (Amanda)