Playwright Amy Herzog Takes a Page From Family History for 4000 Miles
By Brandon Voss
A grandmother and grandson find common ground in Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles, a short-lived 2011 success that has resurfaced Off-Broadway.
Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles world-premiered last summer in an acclaimed production by LCT3, Lincoln Center Theater's developmental lab for new works. It's now playing an encore run Lincoln Center's larger Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater with its original cast intact.
"It's like an incredible reunion," says Herzog of the remount. "It's all the wonderful parts of a production without most of the anxieties, because we've already done it, we know the team's right, and we've been through the critical thing."
Directed by Daniel Aukin, the intimate, heartfelt comedy centers on Vera Joseph, a 91-year-old grandmother who takes in her 21-year-old grandson Leo, a self-proclaimed hippie who has just completed an emotional cross-country bicycle trip. Over the course of several days in Vera's Greenwich Village apartment, this odd couple forms an unlikely bond. "Although there's 70 years between them, both are dealing with loss," explains Herzog, 33. "Vera lost her husband about 10 years ago, but she experiences loss constantly at her age; Leo's dealing with his first major loss, the death of a close friend. They also have very set politics, and they both cling similarly to their ways of thinking."
A devout Communist character who also appears in Herzog's play After the Revolution, Vera is directly based on the playwright's grandmother, Leepee, a passionate leftist who, at 95, still lives independently in an apartment on West 10th Street; Leo is much more loosely based on a cousin. What is it about her granny that Herzog finds so inspiring? "I wonder if I even entirely know the answer to that question," she ponders. "Part of it is her really interesting political history; I've always found it poignant that her fight had such a clear purpose. She's also a fine-boned 4-foot-11 creature, but she's a firebrand and a powerful force. She's not grandmotherly. Most people in my family live in fear of her sharp tongue, but they also adore her and have enjoyed basking in her warmth."
Played first by Lois Smith in After the Revolution at Playwrights Horizons, Vera is portrayed in 4000 Miles by theatre veteran Mary Louise Wilson, who earned a Tony Award for her work as Big Edie in Grey Gardens. "Mary Louise is a comic genius, but she's also so truthful, which is a rare combination," says Herzog. "She's devoted to making every moment of the play detailed and well observed.... I just love watching her."
Herzog also loves watching Brief Encounter's Gabriel Ebert embody young Leo, but she gets a special thrill from seeing Leo's bicycle, which is actually the same one that she rode on a cross-country trek the summer after graduating college. "My husband teases me about it," she says, referring to in-demand theatre director Sam Gold. "I like to think of myself as still riding, but my bike's been in Lincoln Center's hands for close to a year now, and of course I haven't really missed it."
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