The play begins at 3am as Vera's 21-year-old grandson Leo arrives on her West Village, New York City apartment doorstep. He has just ended a trek across the country on his bike, hence the title of the play, and after being turned away by his girlfriend, needs a place to stay. He doesn't know how long he will stay, maybe just a day or two, but the 91-year-old Vera takes him in and, once Leo sees just how alone his grandmother is and since he has no immediate plans, he decides to stay for a while. Over the course of the next two hours we see how these two people, even though they are seventy years apart in age, need each other to survive and how real love and compassion don't need to be overtly stated out loud.
As Vera, Patti Davis Suarez is giving one of the best performances in Phoenix. She is touching, heartbreaking and says so much with only a look. She perfectly captures the feelings, desperation and mundane day to day existence that your typical 91-year-old grandmother must go through. Whether it is her constant talk about the laundry, the bickering phone calls with her neighbor and daughter, how she has difficulty in getting up from the sofa or a chair, the way she is always taking her hearing aid out and putting it back in, or how when Leo first shows up she rushes off to put her teeth in, Suarez wrings every comic nuance and dramatic moment of reality from the life of this old woman who has been living on her own for ten years.
But where Suarez really excels is in her ability to not over-dramatize Vera's dread of death and the fact that she is becoming forgetful. Sure, she is frustrated when she can't remember the words she wants to say or when her hands shake when taking a teacup to the table, but Vera keeps fighting on. Almost all of her friends are goneshe even comments that she's the last one left in her octogenarian clubbut she is still very concerned about life, and not just her life but Leo's life as well. You see, Leo is just as haunted by death as Vera, due to a recent tragedy that is hinted at throughout the play and that we don't fully learn the specifics of until close to the end of the play. That moment, in a scene so cleanly written and directed and beautifully acted, shows how precious life is and that death can come when least expected. Herzog has added a comical ending to the scene so it isn't a downer.
Devon Nickel does a fine job as Leo, who is just as much an independent soul as his grandmother, and he brings the appropriate amount of tenderness to the part as well. Nickel captures the lost boy who doesn't quite know what to do with his life when tragedy strikes. He has a high energy in his delivery that adds a sense of urgency to everything he says along with an added sense of humor, as if making a joke about things, even death, will make it better and easier to swallow. And, though Leo is independent, he is also lost and lately somewhat unable to connect to anyone. When he finds that his grandmother is almost as lost and alone as he is, it gives him someone to connect with. Nickel's interactions with Suarez, especially the way he hugs her as if he is clinging on to life, are extremely touching and perfectly tie into how lost and alone Leo feels. While this is a type of character we've seen numerous times before, Nickel provides enough nuance to it to make it seem fresh and new.
Also in the cast are Courtney Weir as Bec, Leo's girlfriend, and Keilani Akagi as a student he picks up one night and brings back to the apartment. Both are small roles but serve a purpose in the events of the play. Weir has two key moments in the play and it is nice to see how she, as Bec, reacts to the changes she sees in Leo over the course of her visits to Vera's apartment. Akagi gets to deliver some comic moments and her delivery, while somewhat over the top, is effortless.
Director Matthew Wiener must be credited for the accurate portrayal of silence and quiet moments in conversations that naturally happen between people who are seventy years apart. Weiner's light and simple touch allows Herzog's words and the two central performances to shine through, and he is also extremely effective in ensuring the production walks the fine line between drama and comedy without ever becoming over the top. The set design by Jeff Thomson evokes an overstuffed and cluttered room in a Manhattan apartment with all of the items a 90-year-old person would have accumulated over the years. Mismatched furniture and books cluttered and stacked throughout the apartment perfectly match Vera's personality and somewhat scatterbrained demeanor. Tim Monson's lighting design beautifully evokes various times of day. The scene I mentioned before, where Leo tells Vera the specific details of his recent tragedy, is lit in shadows that provide an intimate, almost dreamlike and surreal moment to really make the scene pop. Costumes by Lois K. Meyers are exactly what you'd expect for a 21-year-old self-proclaimed "hippie," his grandma, and two college-aged girls, including some humorous biking gear that Vera finds a bit shocking when she washes it, and a skin-tight outfit for Akagi that immediately lets us know what kind of girl she wants people to think she is.
A one-act play when it was produced Off Broadway in 2011, there is a lot that goes on in 4000 Miles, so the addition of an intermission for this Actors Theatre production is welcome. There are also some things that aren't fully fleshed out. I'm not sure if that was Herzog's intention, as not everything has to be resolved or serve a purpose to the play's overall plot. However, there is much talk about Vera's being a communist that provides some humor and helps flesh out her back story, but I didn't quite know if we are to somehow make a connection with Vera's political past and Leo's ecologically focused views. While I understand it relates to the changing leftist views from Vera's time to Leo's, it still seems somewhat undeveloped. Also, there is some discussion around Leo's relationship with his sister in a scene between Leo and Vera and then we see him Skyping with his sister, but we never really know exactly what to make of that relationship. The play also has a somewhat mellow ending, focusing more on the simple life of Vera's next door neighbor that, while it might somehow be meant to relate back to Vera and Leo, it didn't quite connect with me.
Herzog has written a lovely play that covers many topics and themes and, with Patti Davis Suarez's performance, clear and precise direction, and perfectly simple creative elements, the few shortcomings in the text are quickly forgiven. I highly recommend 4000 Miles for anyone seeking a play that is both dramatic and comedic and offers portrayals of modern day characters and the trials and tribulations of aging as well as those of being lost when you're young, that reflect all of our lives.
The Actors Theatre production of 4000 Miles runs through January 26th at the Black Theatre Troupe/Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, at 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at actorstheatrephx.org or by calling (602) 888-0368
Director: Matthew Wiener