Amy Herzog's 2011 play 4,000 Miles is a quintessentially American work because it broaches that most American of literary themes: the road trip. Yet this play about literal and metaphorical roads takes place in one room—a Greenwich Village apartment that hasn't seen a remodel since 1968. And the road trip isn't really about the actual road trip that serves as the plot's stimulus, a cross-country cycling odyssey that has landed 21-year-old Leo in his 91-year-old grandmother's apartment. It's more a play about Vera coming to the end of her road, with Leo at the relative beginning of his road, and how their journeys bear startling similarities and equally jarring differences.
It's a funny, crisply written work that earned Herzog an Obie Award for Best New American Play, as well as a finalist spot for the Pulitzer Prize. And this finely nuanced production, helmed by South Coast Repertory co-founder David Emmes, does the script justice; 4,000 Miles underscores (quite literally) the reality that there isn't a multigenerational gap between these two kindred, if very different, spirits, as much as there is a torn and frayed bridge, one that connects two worlds—or worldviews—that have much in common, but one that still makes for a perilous crossing.
Both Vera (a magnificent Jenny O'Hara) and Leo (an almost too-intense Matt Caplan) tilt to the political left, but no two characters are better-suited to illustrate the enormous problem when using that hoaried, overused term to describe people's political leanings. Vera is a living relic of America's mid-20th century, an unabashed Communist still living in the former epicenter of that world. Her rent-controlled, Greenwich Village apartment is filled with politically charged books and posters, from Mao's Little Red Book to MLK protest rallies. Though still ornery and impassioned, time has caught up with Vera, whose health is deteriorating and who can count fellow travelers from that era on one hand. Her grandson has inherited a great deal of her intellectual genetics, but as a decidedly contemporary lefty, Leo's card of choice isn't the American Communist Party, but REI. His preferred big city is Seattle rather than Manhattan; his personal causes concern locally sourced organic food rather than fighting for the oppressed. He's more Burning Man than Beat, more eco-hipster than patchouli-drenched hippie.
4,000 Miles at South Coast Repertory's Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Thurs.-Fri., Nov. 14-15, 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 Sun., 2:30 p.m. $21-$72.
But Leo is also in crisis. He has shown up, unannounced, at Vera's apartment after cycling across the United States, with the dream of dipping his back tire in the Pacific and his front tire in the Atlantic. But he lost something irretrievable on the journey, and the suffering, angst-riddled Leo needs Vera as much as the rapidly isolating 91-year-old needs human connection.
What becomes clear is not just that the two are cut from a similar cloth, but that each is barely recognizable to the other. That's shown not only by Herzog's script—Vera is hard of hearing and struggles for words, while the proudly indignant, if not downright self-righteous, Leo has everything all figured out—but also, interestingly, by the play's musical score. Between scenes, Emmes and sound designer Cricket S. Myers have chosen a handful of songs from iconic musicians such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Creedence Clearwater Revival, but arranged them in either a stripped-down or a lushly orchestrated fashion. "The Times They Are A-Changin'" gets a violin flourish; "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Fortunate Son" get Ry Cooder-like slide guitar treatments.
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The re-arranged, wordless snippets in 4,000 Miles aren't immediately recognizable, but with a little time, you can start piecing them together. And that's the point. They are echoes of a bygone era, when music wasn't just the soundtrack for gym workouts or CSI: Whatever the Fuck, but an integral part of social dissent and protest. And just as those songs and artists are still heard today, when wrenched from their historical context, they're just tunes we've heard hundreds of times on our personal hit parade. But by forcing the audience to re-engage with the familiar, Emmes and Myers also prod the audience into looking at the characters of Vera and Leo not through their obvious differences, but through their more subtle similarities. Their words and actions are far different, but the tune they are singing is the same. The challenge is whether either of them can realize that. And isn't that a fitting critique for the fustercluck of the left/progressive/radical/neo-liberal/whatever dilemma today? Screw the emergence of a libertarian or Tea Party third party. Let's get a real left, a real radical, a real goddamn progressive party going in this country that isn't content to pay lip-service to vaulted ideals of the past while guzzling from the spigot of corporate cash.
It's not as if Herzog has written a thinly veiled critique of contemporary lefties, whatever they are. Leo is just one character in one play. But you do kind of wish his real-world brothers and sisters and transgenders had a little more of Vera's piss, vinegar and gumption—and a little less unfocused anger and antagonism for a system that has rewarded so many of them so handsomely. A song that Emmes and Myers didn't choose points it out well. It's the title track from Van Morrison's 1972 album, Saint Dominic's Preview. As with a lot of Van's lyrics, it's elusive and could mean many things or nothing. But one reading is that it's a withering critique of the fractured idealism of the counterculture, with Van singing about people brandishing their chains, badges, flags and emblems, but who, ultimately, are making no commitments to anybody but themselves.
Maybe 4,000 Miles has nothing at all to do with that. Maybe I'm just making shit up. But who knows what would happen if the idealistic, tech-savvy, flash-mobbing, young, organic-warrior lefties of today would put down their smartphones once in a while and pick up some Herbert Marcuse?