On Stage: Family Matters

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Theater veterans and strong cast deliver surprisingly affective ‘4000 Miles.’

Tana Hicken and Grant Harrison in Amy Herzog’s ‘4000 Miles.’ (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Playwright Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” now at Studio Theatre, is a slight play wandering into the unexpected confluence of Leo, a slacker 21-year-old, and Vera, his octogenarian grandmother. However, under the deft direction of Joy Zinoman and a competent, impressive cast, it works at unexpected levels.

Zinoman, who retired in 2010 after 35 years as artistic director at Studio Theatre, clearly understands what Herzog is attempting to convey in the meeting of Leo, who shows up at 3 a.m. at his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment. He has been on a cross-country bicycling trek where the idea is to dip your rear wheel in the Pacific Ocean and then the front wheel in the Atlantic. Leo hasn’t seen his grandmother in 10 years and has been out of touch with his family during his bicycle odyssey.

Leo — sensitively portrayed by Grant Harrison — is struggling with a tragedy that occurred during the trip. A strong but initially unlikable presence, he collides emotionally with Vera, played by the brilliant actor Tana Hicken who is familiar to Washington audiences and has won two Helen Hayes Awards. The collision, more like bumper cars coming together, is of disparate people — Vera, strongly independent but physically failing, and Leo, unfocused and aimless.

Leo’s promised overnight stay extends into weeks, resulting in obvious frictions that inevitably surface between two people of widely spaced generations who share only a tenuous family connection. The relationship does, however, develop into a fragile understanding and even affection between the two characters. In spite of the misunderstanding and frustration, both lives are subtly changed by play’s end with Leo and Vera becoming much more attuned to each other than to other members of their family.

The leads are supported by brief but pivotal characters: Heather Haney as Bec, Leo’s one-time girlfriend, and Annie Chang as Amanda, a ditsy girl Leo brings home in one of those comedic roles that eases the underlying tensions of the play.

This production also reunites Zinoman with Studio Theatre co-founder Russell Metheny, whose set design creates the kind of apartment in which an octogenarian would live with cluttered bookshelves and things that would only have meaning to Vera. It’s a smart move that brings two talented veterans back to the theater’s stage. Zinoman directed more than 70 productions at Studio Theatre and Metheny designed more than 50.

“4000 Miles” is scheduled to run to the end of April.

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