Playwright Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles tackles the generation gap and family politics in a way that makes it easily one of the most engaging and gratifying scripts in recent memory. After seeing Salt Lake Acting Company's production on opening night, it's no surprise it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013, or winner of a 2013 Obie Award for Best American Play.
Perfectly balancing laugh-out-loud comedy and deeply emotional terrain in nearly every scene, 4000 Miles jumps right into the action at the moment when college-aged Leo (Austin Grant) shows up at the Manhatten doorstep of his elderly grandmother Vera (Joyce Cohen) at the tail-end of a cross-country bike trip. It's 3 a.m., and Vera is both a bit leery and pleasantly surprised at seeing the young man for the first time in many years in her apartment--a fine example of the uneasy back-and-forth between the two characters that continues throughout.
While Leo claims he intends to stay for just one night, a traumatic incident during his journey makes a longer visit both necessary and inevitable, and Vera is pleased to reconnect with him. As the days pass, the two compare notes on their favored brands of lefty politics--she's an old-school Communist while his leanings are more informed by hippie free-love tendencies. Another common link is both characters' uneasy relationship with Leo's mother, a woman who doesn't share either of the duo's more radical inclinations.
A series of scenes divided by regular fades to darkness on stage show the struggle each character has to understand the other. While they are clearly affectionate toward each other and looking out for each other's best interests--a pot-smoking session they share to "celebrate the autumnal equinox" is a hilarious example--Leo and Vera have some struggles to overcome. For her, it's the difficulty of aging gracefully as she struggles to "find her words" and deal with the loss of aging friends that seems to happen with increasingly regularity. For Leo, it's dealing with the emotional weight of losing his girlfriend Bec (Shelby Andersen) before he started the trip, as well as the family issues he left behind back home.
Cohen, so good in so many Utah theater roles through the years, digs in to her role as the elderly Vera with aplomb; it's a truly excellent performance from the opening scene to 4000 Miles' conclusion 90 minutes later. And Grant is a revelation as Leo, the 20-year-old theater newbie going toe-to-toe with Cohen and doing more than holding his own.
Likewise, two minor but vital characters help the audience, and playwright Herzog, flesh out the main characters. Andersen's Bec is first the brunt of non-stop jokes from Vera about her "build," but her scenes with Leo help illustrate both his stunted adolescence and maturation over the course of his time in New York. And Lily Hye Soo Dixon does a lot in the role of Amanda, a New York City hipster and rich kid who Leo brings home for an intended one night stand. What's starts out as an over-the-top stereotype of a big city party girl quickly evolves into a thoughtful character who reveals how shallow the generally affable Leo can be at times--a necessary step for the audience to appreciate his evolution by show's end.
Strung together gracefully by director Adrianne Moore, the collection of episodic scenes spanning three weeks' time equate to a whole story that is remarkably satisfying. And with a script performed so well by all involved, 4000 Miles is a must-see spring production for Utah theater lovers.
4000 Miles runs at Salt Lake Acting Company through May 4. Visit the SLAC website for showtimes, tickets and more information. Photo courtesy Salt Lake Acting Company.