4000 Miles — Image via parksquaretheatre.org

4000 Miles

Park Square Theatre
Directed by Gary Gisselman

There’s always something satisfying about a play that manages to strike a balance between exploring universal themes and bringing those themes to life in the context of very particular social milieus. Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer Prize finalist 4000 Miles, currently playing at the Park Square Theatre in Saint Paul, is one such play, populated as it is with characters whose laser-focused specificity renders their frustrations, their small triumphs, and their moments of mutual understanding all the more familiar.

4000 Miles takes place entirely in the rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment of Vera Joseph (Linda Kelsey), an octogenarian widow who rarely leaves her building except to do her shopping. Late one night, Vera’s grandson Leo (Gabriel Murphy) shows up at her door unexpectedly, having (almost) completed a bike ride across the country only to be turned away by his girlfriend Bec (Becca Hart). Vera knows that Leo has been out of touch with his family since encountering a tragedy partway through his journey, and she agrees to take him in for a while without telling his mother.

4000 Miles — Image via parksquaretheatre.orgAs we soon learn, Vera is a committed old-left Marxist — the sort of person whose walls are decorated with books, whose living-room end tables are actually filing cabinets filled with newsletters and solicitations, and whose only piece of artwork is a Soy Cuba movie poster. (Kudos to whoever at Park Square thought up that one.) Leo, on the other hand, is a flannel-wearing, tree-hugging hippie — at least as far as a 21-year-old can be said to be anything yet. Rebelling against his wealthy and politically inactive parents, Leo sees his grandmother as a fellow nonconformist, but that doesn’t stop the differences between their viewpoints from becoming a focal point of many of their discussions.

Just as the difference between Communists and hippies may seem like a subtle one to outsiders, there is a fine line between maturing and aging, and that distinction emerges as another central theme of 4000 Miles. Leo is figuring himself out, and it’s a painful process for him and those around him, but we also see glimpses of progress. Meanwhile, Vera must come to terms with the loss of her hearing, her ability to recall words, her friends, and much else, but she does so with an air of defiance and a commitment to communicating her accumulated wisdom to Leo and others.

4000 Miles is not exactly heartwarming, but it is not cynical either. You might call it bittersweet, and parts of it are certainly funny. In any case, it’s worth seeing, and Park Square does Herzog’s text justice. Kelsey is utterly convincing as Vera, conveying the depth of her empathy and the intensity of her annoyance at foolishness. (My East-Coast transplant heart warmed at the spot-on way she hung up the phone and exclaimed “pain in the ass!” to no one in particular.) Hart gives a memorable take on the deliberately hard-edged Bec, and Joann Oudekerk makes a noteworthy appearance as Amanda, an art student who comes home with Leo one night. As for Murphy, he’s not an entirely plausible 21-year-old, but he shines when he gets a chance to talk at length without interruption. (His tragic tale, when it finally comes out, is riveting.) Anyone interested in Herzog’s much-talked-about play would do well to see Park Square’s production, which plays on their new thrust stage through Dec. 21.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.