Going the Distance

T. Charles Erickson PhotoWhen regional theaters realized that Amy Herzog—an acclaimed playwright still in her 30s, known for her sensitive yet theatrically riveting depictions of family strife and coming-of-age conundrums— had written a one-set, four-character drama with key roles for a young man and an elderly woman, they must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven.

Her 4000 Miles—currently playing at the Long Wharf—is about stuff that many regular Long Wharf theatergoers can directly relate to. A disenchanted youth moves in for a few weeks with his grandmother, an old radical. They sense that they have common ground, but it takes a while for them to get comfortable with each other. Even then, they tend to underestimate each other. She can’t understand why he doesn’t like New York City, and he shorthands her to an acquaintance thus: “A lot of people were Communists back then. It was like recycling or whatever.”

The Long Wharf is the latest of many theaters to present 4000 Miles, which has already had a hit production in New York in 2012 and has become one of the most produced plays in the regional theater realm this season. It’s not particularly breezy, or colorful, or groundbreaking or trendsetting. 4000 Miles is one of those plays that are appealing because they’re not showy. It tackles personal issues on an intimate scale, commonplace issues such as getting along with family and hoping that people will leave you alone while you’re working out a few things.

Here in New Haven, it isn’t just Amy Herzog’s issues that are familiar. She is familiar, too. Herzog attended the Yale School of Drama, which produced her grand opus The Wendy Play (set at a theater camp, and boasting a dozen high-schoolers from the Educational Center for the Arts in its huge cast). In 2011, the Yale Repertory Theatre presented Herzog’s romantic-drama/suspense thriller Belleville, which is currently running in New York.

The play speaks to brazen college-age free spirits who are just forming their political and social viewpoints and finding their place in the world. It also speaks to long-term liberals who’ve put down roots in liberal places. There are no middle-aged people seen in the show, yet it speaks to them too—as those caught in the middle between the change-the-world younger generation and the changed-the-world older one. Though it’s set in Greenwich Village, it speaks loudly and clearly to New Haven, with its transient youth population, its entrench town/gown intellectual urbanism arguments and its concerns about education, crime and legacy.

But that’s the metaphorical, metacritical content. 4000 Miles is also just a show about family trying to get along. Family members support each other while making sure they can still assert their own identity.

Playwright Herzog is well aware of the Odd Couple implications of such a living arrangement. She doesn’t shy away from scenes in which Vera nags Leo to pick up his things, or walks in on him while he’s entertaining a female friend. But those expected interludes don’t distract from the serious nature of the play.

Micah Stock (who serendipitously has the same first name as an unseen departed character in the play) portrays Leo, a 20something Midwesterner who’s given up on college and is “finding himself” in part by biking cross-country from Seattle to New York City. There’s some baggage: His girlfriend is in New York and still in school, and the relationship clearly has seen better days. And the trip has literally been a nightmare, due to an accident that has befallen Leo’s best friend Micah. Micah (the character, not the actor) becomes the drama’s conscience, representing a milestone of maturity, awareness of mortality and social responsibility.

T. Charles Erickson PhotoThis is a play of gradual dawnings rather than sudden realizations. That, along with the exasperations of poor communication (Vera needs a hearing aid; Leo can’t always explain his intentions clearly) and the casual flow of the dialogue, make 4000 Miles realistic and compelling.

Micah Stock forces a disgruntled youthful whiny voice onto his Leo for comic effect early in the play. But he settles into a credible, interesting character soon enough. Zoaunne Leroy, for her part, is a physical type we don’t often see on stage (though we’ve seen her at Long Wharf before, in Gordon Edelstein’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya): short and unapologetically dumpy, in ill-fitting housedresses and T-shirts. Everything about Leroy’s Vera proclaims that this woman seldom leaves the house, and has become settled into a comfortable routine. Her naturalness can be off-putting. The first few times she lapses into what she later describes as “not being able to find my words,” your first thought is that Zouanne Leroy has forgotten her lines. She hasn’t; she’s just giving you more naturalism than you’re used to.

Frank Alberino’s clever set designs furthers the sense of informality amidst order, the unsettled feel of having house guests in a small apartment. We see the framed outlines of the walls of Vera’s apartment, looking into the places where she’s carefully arranged stacks of books and other possessions. Her stuff helps form the shape of the room, just as Vera’s and Leo’s life experiences and prejudgements shape their sometimes testy relationship.

Eric Ting, who’s been Long Wharf’s associate artistic director for the past decade, does with 4000 Miles what he did last year with another New York and regional theater hit, Clybourne Park: He gives the actors room to breathe and makes sure the dialogue is delivered clearly and efficiently. Ting likes to work with shadows and darkness and outdoor-weather imagery. It helps that key scenes of 4000 Miles take place in the middle of the night or during bad weather. It also helps that there’s no intermission, and nothing to break the gentle dramatic momentum of human being learning to relate. The friskier scenes—recent Yale School of Drama grad Teresa Avia Lim as a woman Leo picks up in a bar—are played brightly, but not so much that they become unhinged comic hijinks and throw the whole play off balance.

The more fraught imbalance is that, as an actor, Zoaunne Leroy easily overpowers Micah Stock. Ting allows for this by making sure Stock is front and center, and that the play is seen as Leo’s story. It provides focus and sidesteps the threat of having the vivid Vera upstage the limper Leo at every turn.

Long Wharf’s 4000 Miles is a steady ride, easily mapped out, with lots of nice stops along the way.

T. Charles Erickson Photo4000 Miles runs through March 16 at the Long Wharf Theatre,, 222 Sargent Dr., New Haven. (203) 787-4282.

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