In the space of a little more than 90 minutes, Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” takes us into a complicated relationship between an elderly leftist living alone in Greenwich Village and her twentysomething grandson who has just completed a cross-country bike tour.
Herzog (below) presents a situation that could be exploited for tremendous pathos — the woman is a widow whose health is declining and the young man lost his best friend in the course of his trip — but she keeps the play’s emotions in check. The prickly, humorous, warm relationship between the two central characters feels completely real, but Herzog has shaped the story so that at the final fade-out we have the satisfaction of a strong ending, without feeling that things have been tied-up too neatly.
The Long Wharf Theatre production that officially opened Wednesday night is graced with the presence of two fine actors in the leading roles, Zoaunne LeRoy as Vera Joseph and Micah Stock as Vera’s grandson Leo Joseph-Connell. They make the slowly developing friendship between these distant relatives entirely believable — the play examines the differences between mere blood ties and a real connection between family members who don’t see much of each other.
Herzog manages to detail a tangled family history without ever getting bogged down in exposition. We learn that Vera was married to two men but didn’t have children by them — it was in her second and longer marriage to a New York communist that she became stepmother to Leo’s mother.
Leo arrives in New York hoping to patch things up with his estranged girlfriend, Bec (Leah Karpel, below). She only has two relatively brief scenes in the play, but they are so well written that we can see what brought the two young people together and what is keeping them apart.
Another scene provides comic relief with a slightly bitter aftertaste. Leo picks up an attractive Chinese-American college student Amanda (Teresa Avia Lim) mostly for sexual purposes that are foiled when the young woman finds out that she is in the apartment of a communist. Leo’s attempt to explain the differences between American leftists of the 1930s-1950s and the communists in China falls on deaf ears. Again, we learn a lot about Leo and his family in what could have been a throwaway scene in a lesser writer’s hands.
Director Eric Ting has guided his two leads and the two supporting players to excellent performances and he brings an almost cinematic feeling of focus to a large realistic set (by Frank J. Alberino) through the beautifully designed lighting by Matt Frey. One of the play’s most powerful scenes is played in near-darkness, which shows us how comfortable Vera and Leo have become with each other.
“4000 Miles” pulls off the near-miraculous feat of working as a true crowd-pleaser without ever feeling forced or manipulative.
(“4000 Miles” is playing at Long Wharf through March 16.)