In its own words, Actors Theatre of Phoenix continues its current Nomad status by premiering each of its 2013/14 season at a new location. This weekend saw the opening of the award-winning, off-Broadway drama 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog, and this time the location was at the Black Theatre Troupe building in the excellent Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center on East Washington. Not a bad seat in the house.
The first thing that strikes you, even before the play begins, is Jeff Thomson’s expressive scenic design. The play hasn’t started and yet the overall look of the heavily book-lined living room already tells us a few things about the person who lives there. We’re in the living room of a New York apartment which is littered with old, hard covered books, mis-matched furniture, and an antique wooden radio, and even though the action takes place somewhere around 2007, the land-line by the sofa still uses a rotary dial. It’s like being introduced to an inanimate character even before the house lights dim.
It’s three in the morning and young, twenty-something grandson Leo (Devon Nickel) has unexpectedly turned up at the New York apartment of his ninety-one year old grandmother, Vera (Patti Davis Suarez). Like many important details that we need to know, the reason for his abrupt arrival is only fully revealed at a later time. Writer Amy Herzog spends little time with exposition. Instead of an explanation of meaning or a character’s intent, we discover things through passing remarks, or perhaps an action, but rarely at the moment when we want to know. We have to be patient.
Vera lives alone since her husband passed away. She may be elderly, and she may even face the frustration of regularly forgetting words in the middle of a conversation, something she hates, but she is still sharp of mind and occasionally of wit. When Leo waxes philosophically about his theories of giving love and receiving love in return, Vera pauses for a beat, then says, “What is that? Confucius?”
Leo is a cyclist and the title 4000 Miles refers to the distance Leo has covered on his trek from Washington to Manhattan. “You biked all the way here?” asks a stunned grandmother. “There are some mountains in the middle, aren’t there?” But the title can also represent the distance between people, a distance that will shorten between a grandson and a grandmother before the house lights rise again.
4000 Miles is not plot driven with a story that fully concludes. It’s a study in character where we see short highlights of what happened during the few weeks when Leo arrived on Grandmother’s NYC doorstep. “I don’t know where else to be,” Leo states. The scenes are short and fade to black, efficiently moving from one time of day to another in seconds. Sometimes it moves so fast we don’t always have a moment to take in the significance of what we’ve just heard or witnessed before we move on. Other times, the quick fade is used as an effective punch-line. The opening of the second half has Vera and Leo sitting side by side on the sofa, staring blankly ahead. At first it appears that they might be watching TV until they start speaking in humorously confessional tones. Then we realize what’s happened. True to Herzog’s style of explaining nothing, it’s Leo’s action that illustrates their blank-stared behavior. He reaches for a pipe in front of him and asks Vera if she wants more. They’re stoned, and the scene fades to black. Matthew Wiener, an astute director whose past works have truly shined when producing comedy, makes those few minutes laugh-out loud funny.
Devon Nickel continues to show the promise that earned him the Best Actor 2013 Award from the Phoenix New Times for his performance in Equus, yet he doesn’t fully succeed in showing us why his grandmother warms to him by the end. Based on this production, whether Herzog’s intention was for Leo to show change as the play continued is here unclear. He remains a generally unlikable character throughout, a somewhat self-absorbed young man who is obviously affected by something that happened on his ride across country, but the fragility of his mind is overshadowed by his annoying young man attitude and behavior that sometimes borders on being mean. Turning up at three in the morning of an old woman’s apartment and later asking for fifty dollars or more to climb an exercise wall are two clear examples.
Two other characters, Courtney Weir as girlfriend Bec and Keilani Akagi as Amanda give solid support. Despite the short time we spend in their company, both actors leave the stage having delivered surprisingly well-rounded characters. With Herzog’s dialog and their performances, everything we need to know about those two people is there in the few short minutes of show time.
But the lasting impression, long after you leave the theatre, belongs to Patti Davis Suarez, a woman who we instinctively know is considerably younger than the ninety-one year old we see in performance, but who truly captures the spirit and essence of someone elderly. It’s a wonderfully, nuanced performance where even her moments of silence where she simply sits and listens speak volumes. Watching Suarez as she hobbles around the stage, brightly smiling when feeling good and looking both hurt and disappointed when Leo makes yet another insensitive statement, you understand why the company is called Actors theatre. It’s not just a title, it’s earned.
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