Some generational theorists say that you can be closer to your grandparents’ world views than to those of your parents. Perhaps that’s true (my grandmother was a cocktail drinker), perhaps it isn’t (those arguments about religion!). I suspect that the kind of relationship you had with your grandparents will strongly inform your reaction to Amy Herzog’s generational drama, 4000 Miles, now playing at Studio Theatre under the direction of its former founding artistic director Joy Zinoman.
Twentysomething Leo (Grant Harrison) turns up at his ninetysomething grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment in the middle of the night, fresh (or rather, rank) off a cross-country cycling trip that’s ended in tragedy. He’s lost, existentially, but like a homing pigeon has ended up at a haven he considers safe. Vera (Tana Hicken) may still cling to independence, but her speech is peppered with “what do you call it?” forgetfulness, and she’s in just as much need.
The simple moments when they embrace are the most true.
Leo’s lost his best friend, is losing his girlfriend, has damaged his relationship with his adopted sister, and is masking his deeper emotions with platitudes. Vera is losing her memory, her friends are dying, and she’s clinging to basic routines like laundry in the same way Leo goes rock-climbing. It isn’t just the losses they share, but also a common leftist philosophy, that enables them to act less like grandmother and grandson, and more like friends.
This is a chamber piece about the drifting that marks both youth and old age, about the rigidity and fluidity of communication between all generations. Its success is extremely dependent upon commitment to realism. Hicken (quoted in a recent Washington Post article as saying this may be her last play) is a master at it, giving a remarkable performance rooted in the physical decline of a feisty fighter, with a vocality close to my own grandmother’s struggle to find the words Alzheimer’s stole away. It hurt deeply to hear that pattern again, it’s that grounded in truth.
Realism can be difficult, and at times this production can seem too staged, almost mannered. This is especially true when the ensemble is not interacting with Hicken. She’s the anchor for Zinoman’s directorial style, and together they’re able to make more of Herzog’s play, which in the scenes between the younger generation can uncomfortably resemble parts of Reality Bites. There’s nothing new in the character choices Herzog writes for Leo and the younger women in his life. Neither his girlfriend Bec (Heather Haney) nor his potential fling Amanda (Annie Chang) are given much to do besides lecture him with variations of you’re cute but, grow up, get a life, stop taking peyote! We’ve seen that plot before, many times, the woman telling the man to get responsible, and it’s disappointing for a female playwright to take that old angle.
However, even cliches can be enlivened by a great performance. When Leo and Vera get high together, we know it’s a device to get them to reveal vulnerabilities, but Hicken has that magical ability to make you forget the fourth wall, to overlook a play’s flaws, and to bring out the best in other actors. If this is indeed her last performance, that’s reason alone to get over to 14th Street and see it.
4000 Miles runs through April 28 at the Studio Theatre, located at 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. Tickets $39-82. Closest Metro stop: Dupont Circle (Red line), McPherson Square (Orange/Blue lines), and U Street (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-332-3300.