In real life, people who create drama are people to avoid. On the stage, folks who fight and make loud speeches are just plain easier to write about. Writing about undemonstrative human beings is a higher level of difficulty. But, they’re the subject of Amy Herzog's “4,000 Miles,” now playing in an Asolo Rep production.
The plot? After a cross-country cycling trip, Leo (Benjamin Williamson) shows up unannounced (and unshowered) at the Greenwich Village apartment of his Grandmother Vera (Lois Markle). It’s three in the morning but, after putting her teeth in, she invites him to stay. Leo does. And, over the next few weeks, we discover that his long, strange trip turned into a bad one. Somewhere in Kansas, Leo watched his best friend die in a grotesque, freak accident. He continued the trip to honor his friend’s memory, but has stayed out of touch with his family, except for Vera. Leo’s shattered, but helping his 91-year-old grandmother puts his psyche back together. The details of his tragedy eventually surface. Leo gradually moves on with his life, but there’s no obvious turning point.
Herzog’s play (an Obie Award winner and Pulitzer Prize nominee) is all about character. When it’s a choice between realism or dramatic story beats, she goes for realism every time. Watching this play, you get the rare sense of eavesdropping on real people. The dialogue feels like actual conversation. The interactions are what real people of different generations would do, occasionally clashing, but more often forming awkward agreements in a cramped space.
There’s no hint of staginess. Director Tea AlagiÄ‡ deftly captures Herzog’s naturalistic rhythms. Most of the time, those rhythms are comic. This isn’t a weepy play. Usually, the tragedy stays in the background. The foreground is finely observed comedy, which takes equal pot-shots at Leo’s politically correct earnestness (he refuses to eat a banana because of the jet fuel used to ship it) and his grandmother’s technological incomprehension (Vera’s phone still has a dial; her MacBook Pro is still in shrink wrap). In other hands, Herzog’s material could feel like the stuff of sitcom. In AlagiÄ‡’s hands, it just feels true.
On top of that, the acting doesn’t feel like acting. Markle nicely conveys the indomitable but fragile Vera, an unrepentant Old Leftist from the days when, as Leo put it, “A lot of people were Communist — it was like recycling or whatever.” Again, this could easily feel like a cliché. (Here comes feisty Red Granny!) But, in fact, Vera’s based on a real person: the playwright’s grandmother. Markle’s characterization is a specific human being, not a type. The same is true for Williamson’s portrayal of Leo. He doesn’t wear his trauma on his sleeve, and he keeps up a nuanced dance of respect and emotional distance with his grandmother. Leo’s green philosophy goes too far at times, but it’s not for laughs. The playwright treats his ideas with respect; Williamson’s character ultimately earns your respect.
You see the same realism in the two peripheral characters. Leo’s ex-girlfriend Bec (Maxey Whitehead) is more than a 2-D figure of feminine rejection. She shares Leo’s sorrow; their breakup isn’t collateral damage from the accident. Amanda (Lisa Dring) is Leo’s one-night stand that doesn’t happen. First impression: a flighty art student. You start to see more depth, and separate the actual woman from Leo’s projections.
And, because we’re talking verisimilitude, Vera’s rent-controlled Greenwich Village flat looks like a time capsule from 1968. (I overheard a theatergoer commenting, “I had that statue!” before the action started.) Excellent work from scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg. Kudos also to costume designer Alixandra Gage Englund (for conveying generations, sub-cultures and miles traveled), lighting designer Nick Kolin (for implying the New York City sun’s repetitive arc) and sound designer Jane Shaw (for creating an aural tapestry of sirens, ice cream trucks and children playing).
In the end, Leo grows from boyman to man. His journey goes on. (It’s a bittersweet triumph, for reasons I won’t reveal.) His 91-year-old grandmother will soon face her own journey to the undiscovered country. Even the happiest endings have the shadow of sorrow — at least in real life, and the plays that honor it.
IF YOU GO
“4,000 Miles” runs through April 27, at the Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org for more information.