A person can change a lot during a journey. That change often happens in ways he never could have anticipated, and it sometimes isn’t fully understood until later reflection. That’s exactly what happens in 4,000 Miles, the current production by TheatreSquared. The story revolves around Leo and the events that happen before, during and after his cross-country bicycle trek from Seattle to New York.
A 21-year-old college dropout, Leo arrives unexpectedly at his grandmother’s Greenwich Village apartment in the middle of the night. Vera, his 91-year-old grandmother readily takes him in, though some issues have caused great emotional distance between them. She’s lived in the apartment for decades, and it’s a cozy spot for them to just be roommates for a few weeks as they get to know each other again.
People carry relationships and unresolved issues with them wherever they go. They can’t really escape them, but, when the time is right, they can start to deal with them. The great weight of the conversations that need to happen, and do happen, in this show are lovingly balanced with the humor provided by playwright Amy Herzog.
All of the action in this two-hour show takes place in grandma Vera’s living room — filled with house plants, bookshelves with history and other books, a filing cabinet for an end table, pieces of midcentury furniture and a rotary phone on an actual phone table. This room is a comfortable, safe place where family members and others can explore and test their limits of tolerance and forgiveness.
The initial conversation between Leo and Vera is tense. She tells him his mother has been worried about him and pestering Vera about it. His first impulse is to flee, but Vera convinces him to stay — once she fetches her dentures and hearing aid for a proper conversation.
Leo stinks from weeks of traveling and camping, so she offers him a hot shower and her spare bedroom. These two loners quickly settle into a routine, with her doing laundry and him exploring New York. They bicker like only family can — spirited but with underlying tenderness and familiarity based in love.
As grandmother and grandson reconnect, they find that events in their lives are constantly reminding them of their mortality. A tall, earth-loving hippie, Leo is unapologetically loving, open and trusting. He approaches his shorter, sometimes cranky grandmother with this attitude, often just giving her a hug.
This show is about generations learning about each other, as they truly seek deeper understanding. Both Leo and Vera are looking for direction, even if they claim to be mostly content with their status quo. He ponders his life and his future, which is wide open with possibilities. As friends around her keep departing this life, Vera wonders how to keep adapting as her days count down and she gradually forgets her own life.
In one wonderful scene, Vera tells Bec (Shannon Leigh Webber), Leo’s sometimes girlfriend, how her first husband cheated on her repeatedly. She excused his actions, saying men make decisions based in stupidity but not from any malicious intent. Though she brushes off the cheating, the pain has stayed with her.
Susan Greenhill, who plays Vera, was simply wonderful. She captured the attitude of this proud, delicate yet strong woman. Though it frustrates her, Vera bravely wrestles with the effects of old age — like shaky hands and forgetfulness. Her routine is simple, but one that works for her. She regularly stops in the middle of a story or conversation to try to recall a term or phrase that’s hidden deep in the crevices of her mind. She knows she knows the information, and she realizes that it used to come to her much more readily.
Leo, played by Michael Holding, presents a casual, easy demeanor, but he is wrapped in pain from the loss of his best friend during the bike trek. A powerful moment in the play comes when he explains to Vera exactly what happened — with a surprising connection to Arkansas.
The places this show will take the audience can’t be measured. No matter how far down life’s road people travel, there is some baggage that remains for the whole trip.
This is the second show of TheatreSquared’s eighth season. It arrived in Fayetteville with some impressive credentials: the winner of the 2012 Obie Award for Best New American Play and a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
There are five more chances to see 4,000 Miles, with performances continuing Thursday through Sunday at Nadine Baum Studios. For tickets, call (479) 443-5600 or visit the website at theatre2.org.