by Lisa Traiger
More than a dozen years ago, when playwright Amy Herzog graduated from college, she took a cross-country bike trip, from New Haven to San Francisco. Then she moved to New York, where she lived with her aging grandmother.
These experiences form the bones for “4000 Miles,” an intimate work of unexpected emotional heft, playing at Studio Theatre through April 28. Herzog based Vera, the octogenarian grandmother in the work, on her own 96-year-old grandmother, Leepee Joseph. Vera Joseph, the stage grandmother is vivid: the Greenwich Village-residing Jewish lefty is memorably energetic and outspoken, so much so that this is the playwright’s second work featuring the spunky lady. “After the Revolution,” her first “Vera” play, which hasn’t made it to Washington yet, dealt with the revelation that husband Joe had spied for the Soviets during the Cold War and the hackles that raised in the tight-knit family.
This time, in “4000 Miles,” Vera, played by long-time D.C. actor Tana Hicken, is a bit frailer on her feet, but her tongue remains sharp, even though her hearing is fading and her teeth are gone. Late one night grandson Leo (Grant Harrison) unexpectedly shows up at her door, seeking comfort beyond a soft sofa on which to rest his tired muscles. He has just biked 4,000 miles across the country – for reasons that don’t become clear until later. Caked in grime and mud, his helmet in hand, Leo is a sight for sore eyes and Vera takes him in, no questions asked. His only goal: to dip his bike tire in the Atlantic. After that, he has no plans. What would any grandmother do? She welcomes him with open arms.
Herzog’s conversational, idiosyncratic approach to character development builds slowly throughout the 100 minute intermissionless work, which unfolds in Vera’s cozy, book-filled, rent-controlled Greenwich Village flat. There Leo, a neo-hippy raised in the spoiled confines of Jewish middle-class-dom, unwinds and, ultimately, finds solace in the wake of an unexpected tragedy. Both Heather Haney as an ex-girlfriend, Bec, and Annie Chang, a giggling one-night stand, add detail to Leo’s angst-filled uncertainty.
Marking her directorial return to Studio Theatre following retirement, the theater’s founding artistic director Joy Zinoman leads the small cast. Among this production’s disappointments is the choice of Hicken to play Vera. While the middle-aged actress does well enough playing 80-somethng Vera, she sadly erased any Jewishness in the character. While, of course, Communists were often irreligious, many of the cohort from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s here in the U.S. were Jews who were attracted to the socialist ideals of the era. And some felt their attachment to the party was an expression of their Jewish values, often expressed in political activism, union organizing and Communist party meetings. Seemingly a character like Vera, a life-long New Yorker, a one-time card-carrying member of the Communist party, surely would speak in the cadences and patois of New York, with perhaps a Yiddish inflection, or at least a New York accent. Instead, Hicken’s portrayal strips Vera of her culturally Jewish roots; she might as well be an Episcopalian.
Leo, who came of age in the 21st century, is a young man of his time. He is unsure of where he’s going in life, still searching for meaning and connection after suffering a difficult loss. Together the two tango – agree, disagree and sometimes talk past each other in their generational divide. It’s an engaging portrait of a grandparent-grandchild relationship and in Herzog’s hands it’s what makes it moving and worth a look, even if Vera isn’t the Jewish grandmother you’d hoped for.
“4000 Miles,” Studio Theatre, through April 28, 1501 14th St. N.W., Washington, tickets $39-$83. (202)-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.