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Long Wharf's '4,000 Miles' a touching, funny story of familial connection

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"4,000 Miles" at Long Wharf Theatre

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Much more than a mere 4,000 miles separates the two main characters in Eric Ting’s tenderly-calibrated production of Amy Herzog’s big-hearted look at grief and family, “4,000 Miles,” which is playing at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through March 16.

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Herzog should be familiar to New Haven theatergoers thanks to her deliciously mysterious character study of a tragically co-dependent couple spending their first semester in Paris, “Belleville,” which enjoyed an exemplary production at the Yale Repertory Theatre several years back. She also authored "After the Revolution" which played at New York's Playwright's Horizons which includes several of the characters either in "4,000 Miles"or who maintain a significant off-stage presence. As these works demonstrated, Herzog is able to create enticing, but quirky characters who despite their insistence on withholding key pieces of information or functioning in a seemingly comfortable denial, come across as quite real and accessible to an audience.

In “4,000 Miles,” Herzog focuses on feisty 91-year old Manhattan grandmother, Vera Joseph, a dedicated progressive from a family of lefties, and her lanky, hippie-ish grandson, Leo, who arrives unannounced in the middle of the night after a cross-country bike ride from Seattle. We eventually learn that his companion, Micha, died during the journey, but the exact circumstances and how Leo managed to cope remain revelations that will slowly come to light over the course of the play.

Although the granola-munching, outdoors loving Leo initially intends to stay only overnight, he finds an unexpected respite in his grandmother’s apartment, filled with memories of his grandparents’ political idealism, which establishes a bond between him and Vera, even as they cajole, argue, get on each other’s nerves, and ultimately emotional sustenance to each other. As a result, Leo will be able to confront his feelings about the loss of his friend, while Vera will be able to put aside her loneliness and learn that she has something to offer to a new generation of progressive.

Ting has found a remarkable actress to inhabit the aging Vera in Zoaunne LeRoy, who winningly and unerringly captures the slowing movements, the babbling forgetfulness and heavy-laden sighs of a woman who has endured over eighty years absorbed in the political and intellectual drama of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. LeRoy is absolutely marvelous throughout, no less than when delivering a typically caustic comment that sends the audience into gales of laughter or quite seriously telling a hilariously absurd story from one of her early marriages. It’s a thoroughly believable performance that anchors the play with assurance and insight.

Micah Stock plays grandson Leo as a hippy Peter Pan, both immature and naïve, adhering to a groundless optimism that after allowing him to drop out of college, enables him to wander aimlessly around the country, taking in the scenery, communing with nature, and blindly trusting the people he meets along the way, as long as they share his anti-capitalist, countercultural values. Stock imbues Leo with a selfish carelessness that prevents him from fully understanding the various consequences of his sometimes rash actions, which he believes fit the mold of an environmentally respectful free spirit, while simultaneously hinting at the young man’s genuine desire to grapple with the issues that often keep him from connecting with others, particularly as his relationship with his grandmother grows. Stock manages to convey Leo’s ingenuousness in using his grandmother’s neediness as an explanation for why he remains in New York, while at the same time suggesting that this is something that Leo wants and needs to do nonetheless.

Leah Karpel and Teresa Avai Lim offer fine portrayals of three women in Leo’s life, with Karpel ably expressing her character Bec’s frustration and anger over her boyfriend Leo’s withdrawal into himself after Micah’s death and his ongoing lack of vision or ambition for his future. In a later scene, Karpel shows us what Bec is capable of feeling for Leo, once she can process her feelings more substantially. Lim offers a daffily comic portrait of a potential one night stand, whose history and ethnicity presents Leo with some rather unsettling reminders about some subconscious feelings about his adopted sister, and she later appears via “skype” on Vera’s never-before-used computer as the sister Lily, who provides some welcome reassurance to her slightly younger brother.

The single set by Frank J. Alberino, representing the smallish, book-crammed apartment in which Vera and her late husband Joe had lived in for decades, is not only functional, but reflects the wear and tear expected from a place that has hosted political meetings as well as family gatherings over the years, and that remains virtually unchanged from the day that Joe passed away some 10-15 years ago. Matt Frey’s lighting not only accommodates a sudden overnight thunderstorm, but creates the typical shadows and accents that occur when lights left on in one room subtly flow into an adjacent dark room. Ilona Somogyi has contributed costumes fit for an elderly home-based woman, a bedraggled young man, a feisty undergraduate, a bar-hopping woman looking for a good time, and a well-insulated bicyclist. I wish that Ting and sound designer Matt Tierney had incorporated more of the mood music that covers the darkened scene changes to a greater extent during the earlier scene changes. The music works to much better effect in the latter stages of the play, as it seems to mesh more with the emotional elements of the scenes.

Ting manages to maintain a gentle pace reflective of how the relationship will develop between the two main characters, but the 115 minute, intermissionless play never drags. Most of the key action takes place on a long sofa that faces the audience that becomes for Vera and Leo the place where they can come together and acknowledge their similarities and provide a necessary respite and refuge from their respective grief and fears.

Herzog has written a lovely, insightful play that is as funny as it is touching. She offers many unexpectedly clever moments, several resulting from Vera’s inability to immediately locate her hearing aids as well as from her general irascibility. Herzog admits that Vera is inspired by her grandmother, who was indeed an unapologetic progressive, as were her parents, her grandfather and her extended family. She also in a way was inspired by an acquaintance who lost a young friend under equally tragic circumstances. In “4,000 Miles,” she does their inspirations proud while entertaining and moving a theater full of strangers.

For information and tickets, call the Long Wharf Box Office at 203.787.4282 or visit the Long Wharf website at www.longwharf.org.

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