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Thursday, May 23, 2024

‘4000 Miles’ is a fascinating comedy drama, character-driven play

In Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles comedy drama, the journey is long for Vera Joseph [Patricia Conolly] and her grandson Leo Joseph-Connell [Gabriell Salgado], but a meaningful one. Opening the new season at Palm Beach Dramaworks, and directed by J. Barry Lewis, this play is unclear where it sits in time. However, it focuses on the strength of family relationships, and how time and distance can easily break that strong tie.

4000 Miles premiered Off-Broadway at The Duke Theater in New York City on June 20, 2011, under the direction of Andre Bishop, Bernard Gersten, and Paige Evans. It didn’t take long for members of the media to cleverly define Herzog’s humor and honesty as a rarity. “A family play that avoids sentimentality or sitcom shtick,” reported Time Magazine then. While The New York Times praised it as “truthful and touching and fine,” and the Wall Street Journal called it “a small-scale character study reminiscent of Chekhov in its emphasis on personality over plot.”

And now, under the direction of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ longstanding director, Lewis takes this all-together wonderful drama and draws it out to make a lasting impression on its audience. And while the play is performed without an intermission, it is vastly engaging, filled with comic relief that seeks to bring laughter out of calamity. Very worth sitting through.

Herzog has an amazing new voice. A grad of Yale School of Drama, she is a playwright that came onto the scene in the mid 2000s. While she published other works before 4000 Miles, things really began to click for her when she looked at members of her own family—people who had stories that she thought could be told in dramatic, interesting, and engaging ways—to tell her story. The character of Vera, the grandmother played by Conolly, is based on the playwright’s own grandmother. And the role of the young man, Leo, is sort of loosely based on the role of a cousin that she had.

4000 Miles is a fascinating story of three generations coming together: Emerging. Discovering. Learning and finding new ways to communicate with one another, and hopefully moving forward to live their own journeys.

The acting is worth seeing. In particular, that of Patricia Conolly, an amazing artist who has graced the stages of this country for the last 40 years. This production also showcases some new talent like Salgado, Stephanie Vazquez [Bec], and Isabella Chang [Amanda] who bring their bright talents to the script.

Following a devastating loss while on a cross-country bike trip, 21-year-old Leo finds comfort in the arms of his 91-year-old grandmother, Vera. She lives in a rent-control West Village, Manhattan apartment and can’t understand why her grandson, a bright young man with a loving family waiting for him back home, has decided to ride 4000 miles across the country on a bike!

There are scenes where Herzog takes you inside the Joseph family that you feel right at home, things that are familiar to both the playwright and her audience. Like the one with Leo’s arrival at Vera’s Manhattan apartment, where he waltzes in with his dirty bike and hippy demeanor, totally unannounced. Vera comes out of her room a bit confused with her hand cupped over her mouth. At first, you think she’s just surprised to see her grandson in her living room. However, when she begins to talk you realize she’s left her false teeth in the next room.

After the awkward greeting between grandmother and grandson, and the old woman’s examination of the young man’s shabby attire, not to mention the dirty bike sitting in her spotless living room, Vera retorts, “Go take a bath. You might have lies.” And what starts as a one-night visit turns into a month—a series of scenes that are both puzzling and symbolic representations of the progressions and emotional discoveries found within the play.

The title 4000 Miles does relate to the actual distance from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Coast, a bike trip that typically takes 75 days. Leo says he’s been on the road since early June and it is now September. This gives the audience an idea of what his trip so far has been like. Most especially as he describes it as, “living out, sleeping out, eating out, camping out.”

As Vera notes, Leo has explored and discovered much, but there are many things he doesn’t reveal. Throughout the play, we learn of traumatic events that are the impetus for the action of the play. We don’t know exactly what they are at the beginning, but we begin to discover them scene by scene and realize how traumatic they are. The beauty of this play lies in the way these two individuals begin to communicate, heal, and trust each other in ways that are unexpected.

The playwright delivers a clear message. Sometimes traumatic events happen in our lives that we can’t talk about. We can experience them and we can sort of exist in a world in which these events occurred. But it’s no less engaging in terms of action.

At first, you wonder why 4000 Miles was nominated for the Pulitzer. You also wonder what made it a highly acclaimed Broadway production, not to mention all the other subsequent productions around the country. And while the play doesn’t have a lot of action, we don’t want to forget that action is not a substitute for effective dramatic intention and flow.

This play has all the elements of a gripping story. After all, language is powerful. And it is only through language that people are able to truly communicate or at least start to communicate with one another. And that’s what the playwright has done so successfully and so beautifully in this story. She takes very real and naturalistic conversation and uses these characters to deal with loneliness and those things that come with aging and emotional trauma. She also shows how they are coping and coming to terms with all of it. And the result is a very funny, delightful, and moving drama. A timely reminder that for a story to be worthwhile, it doesn’t have to be action-packed, a formula so widely used in the industry. As the playwright demonstrates, life is made up of millions of small moments, and her keen focus on some of hers produced a Pulitzer prize play.

4000 Miles is now playing until October 30, 2022. To buy your tickets, go to palmbeachdramaworks.com or call their box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is located at 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach.

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