Gloucester Stages Sweet, Unsentimental 4000 Miles (4 Stars)

‘4000 Miles’ Written by Amy Herzog; Directed by Eric C. Engel; Set Design by Ryan Bates; Costume Design by Molly H. Trainer; Presented by the Gloucester Stage Company at The Gorton Theatre, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester through August 17th.

I was prepared to be disappointed in the Gloucester Stage Company’s current production of Amy Herzog’s dramedy “4000 Miles” despite the fact that it had been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013. It had nothing to do with the theater company, as GSC produced some of the best dramatic theater that I saw last year (particularly “Spring Awakening” and the brilliant “This Is Our Youth”), and this season was off to another solid start with “Jacques Brel” and “Auld Lang Syne”. My trepidation was instead fueled by the subject matter. When I saw the synopsis (which read): “After suffering a major loss while he was on a cross-country bike trip, 21-year-old Leo seeks solace from his feisty 91-year-old grandmother Vera in her West Village apartment in New York City”, my cynicism kicked into high gear, and I thought I’d be subjected to another heartwarming drama where two radically different people have something to teach one another – essentially a higher browed version of what you’d expect to see on the Hallmark Channel on basic cable. But given the strength of the productions I’ve attended at the cozy theater over the last two seasons, I went anyway.

And I’m so glad I did. There was some learning going on, but it was fittingly a lot more one-sided than I had imagined it would (and should) be, given the ages of the central characters. According to a Boston Globe piece, playwright Herzog based the character of Vera on her own grandmother, a card carrying commie that reminded me of the lovably eccentric couple that used to run the Marxist Book Store in Central Square in Cambridge. She apparently was a communist of the feisty but cuddly variety, more concerned with anti-war activity during the sixties than destabilizing the government.

Vera is a well-drawn three dimensional character, and the talented Nancy E. Carroll brings her fully to life without ever reducing her to caricature.
Grandson Leo (Tom Rash) comes to her apartment unexpectedly late one night after completing a bike trip where his best friend Micah died halfway through the journey. He’s in rough shape in a number of ways, including with some inappropriate behavior towards his adopted sister that leaves him unable to return home to his parent’s home in St. Paul as well as a broken relationship with his college student ex-girlfriend, Bec, who may have outgrown him.

Despite his screwed up life, he has no qualms about dispensing his post-hippie wisdom to his worldly grandma. When she questions the safety of crashing for the night at the homes of complete strangers during his cross-country trip, he dismisses her as out of touch with the new world (forgetting she lived through the sixties) by speaking to her as if he were a guru, “If you approach people with love and trust, they’ll give the same back to you.” She responds by asking, “Who said that? Confucius?” To which he replies with swelled pride, “No Leo J. Connell.”

What he is missing however, is the slightest bit of introspection, which he is blissfully unaware of. Despite his “New Age baloney” (as Vera later aptly describes it) Leo has no clue about real life, and this becomes apparent during his interactions with Grandma. While she has lived a long, full and pretty damned interesting and challenging life, Leo is, well…21. Rash plays Leo convincingly, as he initially persuades us that he may have something going on between his ears but his responses to life’s situations (like not showing up for his friend’s funeral so that he could complete his biking quest) are for lack of a better word, childish. He’s never even had a real job, letting his parents bankroll his lifestyle. The portrayal of Leo and the other twenty-somethings in the show may have that demographic crying foul, but the truth is that wisdom and maturity aren’t particularly innate, no matter how bright or earnest the individual. Sarah Oakes Muirhead (as Bec) and Samantha Ma as Leo’s attempted hookup partner do a nice job in small but significant roles.

Carroll is subtly brilliant, and she deftly adds a number of comic touches to her performance. Her portrayal of an aging woman who is slowly losing both her physical dexterity and mental acuity is incredibly true-to-life and her level of commitment to the role is at times astonishing. “One of the worst things about getting old is that I can’t seem to find my words,” she tells Leo. And we watch her anguish as she struggles throughout the piece to convey thoughts that would have rolled off her tongue easily only a short while before. And just watching her getting up from a chair or sitting down is so painstakingly for her that she should win some sort of an award for physical acting.

This play is very sweet, but never saccharine, and well worth the drive outside of Boston, especially during this glorious summer we’re having. For more info, go to: