Question to the director: How do you approach an exquisite play whose focus is authenticity?
Answer from the director: Cast fine actors who are absolutely born for the parts. Then get out of their way.
That director’s cut of wisdom was offered by Eric Ting as he took a break from rehearsals for 4000 Miles. The play, by Amy Herzog, was a Pulitzer finalist; it opens at Long Wharf Theatre Feb. 19 and runs through March 16.
The play concerns a 20-something Leo (played by Micah Stock, pictured) who has just biked across the country. Leo is trying to forget, among many things, the terrible accident that killed his best friend. He shows up in the Greenwich Village apartment of Vera, his 90-something grandma whom he hasn’t seen in ten years. She’s an old lefty who may have lost some, if not all, of her teeth, and some of her recall, but not her wit.
Leo needs to remember important things and to find himself. Vera needs to remember unimportant, yet vital, things—like where she left her keys.
In short, grandson and grandmother need to get acquainted across the divide of generations and family craziness, because they need each other.
Both those works also observe people struggling with lefty politics, communism, betrayals, idealism, history, being true to oneself, and grandparents, much of which Herzog concedes as close to the bone of her own biography.
Beautifully observed behavior and quiet high drama are in this one too, said Ting, in the hands of the right actors (Click here for another Independent interview on directing with Ting from 2011 when he directed John Patrick Shanley’s Italian-American Reconciliation.)
“With a play so well written, the biggest problem is the casting,” said Ting.
He ran the rehearsals the way he always does, including interviewing the actors to see if their life stories fit the parts.
In the play, people can’t put on any airs but must be so natural that you forget there’s an actor up there, just the character embodied. So Ting needed to look deep.
He feels he hit pay dirt in Micah Stock.
“He was born for the role,” Ting said. Ting found that out in no small part through interrupting the audition.
“I spent a lot of time interviewing the actors, coming to know who they are,” he said. “There’s no room for artificiality in [this] play. No room in the play to be someone you’re not.”
He recalled the auditions for the Leo character when, at a point of frustration, Ting said he called out, “Why can’t someone come in who is Leo!”
That’s when it was Micah Stock’s turn to strut his stuff for the director. He was off book and the long speech he recited, from the middle of 4000 Miles is the longest speech in the play. In it Leo reveals the tragic bicycling accident when he and his friend named Micah [is that eerie!] were trailing a large truck bearing hundreds of chickens. The cargo dislodged and . . . well, Leo’s guilt is what in part has driven his journey to grandma’s house.
But in a play like Herzog’s, acing a monologue could not be enough. Ting said he asked Stock whether he had a grandmother. The answer was yes. And if he was close to her, and to describe the relationship, and so the interview went on.
Something intuitive caught Ting’s eye and he knew quickly that, as Ting put it, Leo and Micah Stock were one.
“Anyone who has the love for the theater has [the experience] when you see someone doing a role, channels it ... there are moments when you forget there’s an actor saying lines.”
Ting said he believes he’s got the same find in eighty-something Zouanne LeRoy, who plays Vera. Although Ting sees the play as Leo’s—because he’s the one he makes the major, though subtle shift in his life, it is Vera who—watch that name again—keeps the play from “veering into a sentimental space,” said Ting.
There’s a lot of tragedy in the past of the play, in the end of the play and even in the back stories that percolate up through phone calls to the worried so called nuclear family of Leo’s back in Minnesota. As played by the Vera that Ting wants LeRoy to be, “the beauty is it’s non-sentimental even in the face of tragedy.
“In the end the play is about authenticity,” he said, which is why he and the actors spend a lot of time talking about how the characters are trying to live in their own skins.
Before he was called in to the rehearsal, Ting entertained a skeptical question: Just because you have selected two actors you believe are born for the parts, how do you know they will work together, that there will be the much vaunted “chemistry” you hope for?
Ting paused and called that a difficult question. He suggested that beyond or above or running through the whole process was also this question he asked himself: “Do I want to spend four weeks with this person?” That’s a joke, he said, but one that contains the truth as well.
“The people I’m drawn to are drawn to each other. We find each other,” he added.
The other actors in the production include Leah Karpel and Tersa Avia Lim.