BY SANDY STAGGS
When a young man lands on his grandmother’s doorstep in Greenwich Village at 3 a.m. with his bicycle in Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” life will never be the same for either of them.
Leo Joseph-Connell (Dusty McKeelan) is an aimless, spoiled 21-year-old who just wrapped up a cross-country bicycle trip. He has been living off the grid with no cell phone — pedaling, camping, mingling and depending on the kindness of strangers for 4,000 miles since he left Seattle. He is smelly, calls his elders by their first names and as we soon discover, damaged.
Leo has been MIA for a couple of months and has just surfaced. He has been dumped by his girlfriend, Bec (short for Rebecca and played by Trinity Smith) and lost his best friend, Micah, in a manner that Herzog slowly reveals as the play progresses.
Vera Joseph (Barbara Bates Smith) has been a widow for a long time. Her furniture is from the 1970s and she still uses a rotary phone. She is a liberal — a former Marxist with ties to Cuban intellectual circles and Havana artwork adorning her living room walls — with failing health (a hearing aid) and early signs of Alzheimer’s.
Vera is spunky and cantankerous and wears her heart on her sleeve, but has no qualms about saying what’s on her mind whether she is confronting her grandson with “Are you high?” or musing about how neither of her husbands satisfied her sexually.
These two characters and their interactions form the thrust of this compelling dramedy as they cohabitate, argue, laugh and re-acquaint themselves with each other. They form a bond over a few weeks and begin to share emotional and practical needs as the pain of growing up and grower old somehow intersect.
McKeelan and Bates Smith are no less than phenomenal and give unwavering performances in this play that sells us completely on the rich dialogue and deliberate rationing of details about these individuals.
McKeelan demonstrates vulnerability most actors are afraid to show. His commitment to Leo is firmly entrenched when he broaches a peyote-induced incident via video call with his adopted sister Lily. and later — in the play’s big reveal and most touching scene — when he and Vera sit in complete silence and darkness except for the city lights beckoning through the windows, actually from the fourth wall as there are no windows in Julie K. Ross’ splendid set design.
Ms. Bates Smith is impeccable as the lonely, irascible Vera, who has outlived two husbands. And as the last living octogenarian in her dwindling group of friends, she knows the end is near. One can feel the frustration as her Vera struggles to find her words and then make us laugh in the same breath with pensive observations about the stupidity of men or smoking weed with her grandson.
Trinity Smith is a fine Bec, presenting pain and sorrow as she herself deals with loss and tries to pick up the pieces and carry on. Her character solidifies Leo’s past and is the catalyst for his future without her.
And Emma Stoneberg brings a wholesome dose of merriment in her brief scene as Leo’s potential one-night-stand Amanda, a kooky Chinese girl whose parents own a dim sum empire in San Francisco. She is promiscuous and well-dressed, but her heritage also serves as a foil to the communist views espoused by both Leo and Vera. Stoneberg has the least stage time and is the least-developed character, but she elicits empathy as she is shunned by Leo who is no longer emotionally-equipped for intimacy.
NC Stage Company artistic director Charlie Flynn-McIver helms “4000 Miles” and dexterously delivers an engaging and moving production that is consistent and thoughtful. The entire play takes place in the living room and the actors unceremoniously and seamlessly move props between scenes (mostly dinner plates and coffee cups) as if they are just cleaning the apartment. And during the costume changes, we are entertained by rock and grunge music like the Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” most fitting since Leo’s journey began in Seattle.
The entire production’s design is first-rate: Ross’ white painted brick walls and lighted bookcases, Jessica Tandy Kammerud’s props and Anna Blanchard’s costumes. But Wally Eastland’s lighting is extra praiseworthy. The lighting here establishes the mood of the play and shows the passage of time as day becomes night. The crisp “natural” sunlight, muted moonlight and tempered Manhattan city lights from the windows are breathtaking.
“4000 Miles” is an intense and funny work and a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Herzog examines themes of loss, mortality and family (via adoption or blended through marriage), as well as politics and technology. And we are taken on one a heck of a journey without ever pedaling a single mile.
For the record, Seattle to NYC is only about 3,000 miles but Leo rode through Kansas, the center point of the country with many tangents along the way.
“4000 Miles” runs through Oct. 25 on Wednesdays – Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $16-32. NC Stage Company is located at 15 Stage Lane in Asheville. Call (828) 239-0263 or visit http://www.ncstage.org.