By David A. Rosenberg
“It’s about community,” says Vera Joseph. The nonagenarian onetime Communist struggling with old age knows that helping people is what counts. In Amy Herzog’s intergenerational “4000 Miles” at Long Wharf in a diluted production, Vera, who checks in daily with a neighbor she doesn’t particularly like, is put to the test by her needy, footloose, new-age grandson Leo Joseph-Connell.
Leo’s hyphenated name is an indication of his internal divisions. Estranged not only from his immediate family but himself, he arrives at his grandmother’s Greenwich Village apartment in the middle of the night, after a cross-country bike trip from Seattle. “I’m here because I don’t know where else to be,” says the bedraggled grandson, before telling Vera about the horrendous accident to his friend Micah that destroyed Leo’s soul. As Vera and Leo draw closer together, as they wisely grapple with growth and death, they give meaning to each other’s lives.
The accident is a capitalist crime. Snuffed out by a cruel and indifferent corporation was a carefree, happy, uncaged, natural individual. At first traumatized, Leo, under Vera’s prodding, must come to terms with his loss.
Herzog, whose “Belleville” at Yale Rep was one of its year’s best, is as gritty as she is pungent. “4000 Miles,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist, is daring in its construction, a work of import and understanding in an evening where people only think they know one another.
Although Eric Ting’s direction is sensitive to the characters, his arc is softer and tamer than it need be. The play itself is certainly convincing -- Herzog writes from personal experience -- but it’s played here with an avoidance of pain.
Zoaunne LeRoy’s Vera is fluttery and addled in a performance that transcends “acting” and becomes “reality.” Missing is the idea that dormant seeds of a fierce, card-carrying Commie could still take root. The evening thus veers away from a conflict of wills and towards a focus on Leo, acted by Micah Stock with a laid-back surface that hides his confusion. Leah Karpel as his former girlfriend and Teresa Avia Lim as a late-night pickup are one-note.
Frank J. Alberno’s setting of a rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment is attractive but, due to a paucity of books that would reflect Vera’s history as an old world radical, it’s characterless. Matt Frey’s lighting and Matt Tierney’s sound design suggest the danger lurking around corners, while Ilona Somogyi’s costumes range believably from Vera’s comfortable at-home housedresses to Amanda’s challenging downtown togs.
Herzog posits that we are interconnected not by genetics alone but emotional wires that snake through the cosmos. When the wires cross, conflagrations flare. It takes a compassionate writer to put out the flames.