Reggie Gowland is Leo Joseph-Connell and Susan Blommaert is Vera Joseph, his grandmother, in Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Below: Gowland’s Leo wrangles over matters of the heart with Julia Lawler as Bec. Photos by Kevin Berne.
How do you make a hug between grandmother and grandson a high point of a play without making it corny or sentimental? That’s the trick playwright Amy Herzog and director Mark Rucker pull off in the compelling drama 4000 Miles now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.
The moment comes fairly early in this 90-minute one-act after 21-year-old Leo (Reggie Gowland) has surprised his 91-year-old grandmother, Vera (Susan Blommaert) by showing up in the middle of the night after completing a cross-country bicycle trip from Seattle to Manhattan.
There’s a lot they need to talk about, like why Leo disappeared for months after his bicycle trip with his best friend Micah went horribly awry or why stubborn Vera doesn’t reach out for help as often as she should as she navigates old age with mixed success. But first these two just need to connect.
She’s an old Leftie, a card-carrying Communist whose second husband wrote books about Cuba. He’s a vaguely New Age hippie. Neither of them is as well versed in their manifestos as they should be, but they both live with the conviction of true believers. Theirs isn’t so much a cultural or generational clash as it is a bumpy reunion of like minds and hearts.
The hug comes when Vera is upset but doesn’t readily take comfort from the rare warm body in her Greenwich Village apartment. The raggedy, bushy-haired Leo, who towers over his grandmother, opens his arms and says, almost jokingly, “How about a hug from a hippie?” Vera, in her slightly doddering way, waves him away. Then she re-thinks the option, turns around and falls into her grandson’s arms. They both seem a little surprised by how much the hug ends up meaning.
The fact is, these two find each other when they most need each other. Theirs is not a stereotypical clash of the older and younger generations, with each railing against the other’s foreign ways and then coming to a begrudging, ultimately loving understanding by the final curtain. These two love each other from the start. Their ways are rather foreign, but they also have a great deal in common.
The real pleasure of Herzog’s script and Rucker’s sensitive production is that it feels real. The rhythms aren’t theatrical. Some scenes are long, others are quite short. And that’s a difficult thing to pull off in the giant Geary.
Set designer Erik Flatmo has created a strikingly lifelike apartment with the focus on the living room (where there’s a working rotary dial phone to give you an idea of the design sense), although the size of the stage allows glimpses into the kitchen, Vera’s room and the hallway outside the apartment’s front door.
In spite of the finely detailed set, the sheer size of the theater swallows up some of the naturalism. Nuances, both vocal and physical, tend to get lost, and some of the scenes, especially the quiet ones like Leo’s soliloquy about his bike trip, don’t connect in the way they should
The performances are lovely, though. Blommaert’s Vera conveys a believable tussle with the horrors of aging, like not being able to remember words, the luxury to say whatever is on your mind (even if it involves telling your grandson that he sounds stupid) and the, in her words, “disgusting” physical deterioration that accompanies her advancing years. Vera gets a lot of laughs, but they are not in any way “Golden Girls” laughs. This is a smart, political woman who doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, and Blommaert is sharp and compassionate in the role.
Gowland’s Reggie is just as believable at the opposite end of the aging spectrum. He’s 21 going on 16. We see him interacting with two women, his girlfriend Bec (Julia Lawler) and an art student he brought home for a fling (Camille Mana). In his dealings with these two very different women, we see that he’s honest and sincere (almost to a fault) but immature. He’s been through a rough time, but it’s time for him to stop behaving like a teenager and step up to manhood. Gowland is loveable but he has some sharp edges, which is good.
4000 Miles is, in the end, a story of transitions, of family members being there for one another to help, not in a sappy way but more of a being there and listening way. Vera and Leo are better for having spent some time together, both ready to add a few more miles onto their respective journeys.
I talked to playwright Amy Herzog for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles continues through Feb. 10 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.