The misunderstanding begins immediately in Amy Herzog’s superbly drawn 4000 Miles, receiving a sterling production at Artists Repertory Theatre. Vera can’t hear very well to begin with, and her grandson Leo is prattling on about something—the nameplate next to her buzzer, how it lists her late husband, not her?—at 3 am in the morning. She jumps to the chase: “You need a place to stay, is that it?” But Leo can’t understand her very well because she doesn’t have her teeth in.
Vera attempts to establish some basic facts. Is Leo high? Is he hungry? Does he know everyone is worried about him? Vera has a way of putting people on the defensive with questions and strong assertions. Leo, in his bike gear after a transcontinental bike ride—and an unsuccessful meeting with his probably now ex-girlfriend Bec—is caught in the crossfire. And he almost bolts. Almost.
Instead, he settles into a routine at Vera’s place, and over the next couple of weeks they start sounding each other out. It’s a loop of disclosure and misinterpretation. Sometimes they even get close to understanding each other, but especially for Leo, that would mean understanding himself a little better. Or as Vera says, accepting some responsibility. Or as Bec suggests, obliquely, becoming an adult.
So far, four well-regarded plays into her career, Herzog has made that transition—into adulthood, into a state responsibility—a key theme. That sentence sounds a little too analytical: Herzog is attuned to the pain, frustration, uncertainty, and even partial insanity that marks the transition phase—assuming one ever gets through it. That means as empathetic viewers, ahem, we are likely to feel some related emotions: irritation, embarrassment, and the urge to sit down all the characters involved for a little heart-to-heart. This last one is typical, I suppose: But do we really think we could make them understand?
I have missed the two previous productions of Herzog’s work in Portland, Portland Playhouse’s production of After the Revolution, a prequel of sorts to 4000 Miles, and Third Rail’s Belleville. Which means I’m uniquely unqualified to write about 4000 Miles, I suppose, and that this is my first encounter with the work of Herzog. And after Artists Repertory Theatre’s edgy production—directed by Alana Byington and starring Joshua J. Weinstein as Leo, Vana O’Brien as Vera (she played the same character in After the Revolution), Carolyn Marie Monroe as Bec, and Danielle Ma as Amanda, a pick-up Leo might have pursued because of her resemblance to his adopted sister—I wish I’d seen the other two.
Both of those plays were championed by the New York Times’ Christopher Isherwood, received important New York productions, and won numerous awards, announcing Herzog, now in her mid-30s with an MFA from Yaule School of Drama, as an important new voice in American theater, sharing a sensibility and sense of craft with Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens) and Lisa D’Amour (Detroit).
On the evidence of 4000 Miles, Herzog, like Baker and D’Amour, knows her way around dialogue of a convincing sort—halting, occasionally incoherent (at least to the characters onstage), tentative, probing. A good account of the way we actually speak, while retaining the consecutiveness we so often lack. And that dialogue talks around and is shadowed by failure, not just to communicate but to act honorably.
The Artists Rep set, designed by Kristeen Willis Crosser, is Vera’s simple, “realistic” apartment, with books scattered about, mostly having to do with politics of a Leftist bent. Vera had been a member of the Communist party back in the day, along with her husband, who had passed on secrets to the Soviets during World War II, a central feature of After the Revolution and Herzog’s own family’s life, though it’s not mentioned here. The action, not that there’s a lot, spools out in a series of ten episodes, in this longer one-act play.
Leo calls himself a “hippie” at one point, and that’s not far off, though maybe it’s a hippie-hood minus the ecstasy even though it’s following its bliss. Leo’s is built around the moral proposition that ‘my pain is my pain, and your pain is your pain,’ and though he might have compassion for you, he knows he can’t really help you. And the reverse is true as well. This is an extreme position, of course, and over the course of the ten scenes we start to see it start to break down. Maybe we can help each other a little, after all?
Not that it’s easy. Leo’s encounters with Bec, for example, are all about the pain, the failure to click, the lack of understanding. Weinstein, who plays Leo with a zen-like facade, cracks a little as his desire to be close to Monroe’s Bec is thwarted. Monroe is somehow passionate AND remote in these exchanges, a nice combination to pull off. We root for them, perhaps, though it’s pretty apparent that they are aren’t going to have the time, space or proximity to pull it back together.
In another scene, Leo brings back a Sure Thing to Vera’s apartment, Amanda, a rich fashion design student, with platform shoes, an alluring dress, and a clear desire to party on. But maybe you’ve already guessed how that one’s going to end.
But the central relationship of 4000 Miles is grandmother and grandson. O’Brien’s Vera cares for Leo, clearly, but she’s impatient with him, too. What’s with the biking, the wall climbing, the infatuation with Bec? What’s he doing with himself? Something happened on the bike ride that bothers him, but he won’t talk about it. He won’t talk to his family, including his sister. She doesn’t understand it, doesn’t understand him, doesn’t like getting old, and occasionally she gives in to cranky. Maybe more than occasionally.
But it’s great fun to watch them figure it out, a dance that includes some swordplay, a tango. Is it giving away too much to suggest that the gears never really mesh, at least not the way we hope they should?
In 4000 Miles, Herzog gives us a set of very finely observed characters Vera struggles with her hearing, her balance, and other problems of growing older, including how to interpret the language and behavior of Leo’s generation. Leo can’t quite figure out why his philosophy doesn’t spare him pain, and why it doesn’t answer key questions for him. Bec is trapped between the mixed memories of her time with Leo and her new career as a student, which somehow aren’t compatible. Even in her brief cameo, Amanda manifests some specific confusions about herself and life.
Nothing much happens onstage, really, just these characters manifesting themselves. Which is actually a lot when you think about it. And the cast and director Byington dig into them in interesting, completely believable ways. I liked the stiffness and tension of Weinstein’s posture at times, for example, and the warmth he brings to Leo. And the toughness O’Brien projects as Vera. And the fullness of Monroe’s depiction of her life stretching into two irreconcilable parts, before and after Leo, with her caught in the elastic middle right before they snap apart. It’s quite lovely.
So, yes, now I regret missing Belleville and After the Revolution even more. And I’m hoping someone has plans to deliver us The Great God Plan, the one Herzog play that has escaped us so far.