Thoughts & Musings

Continental Drift:
Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles (2011)

©2015 by Eileen Warburton

Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”

Bob Dylan, 1975

Begrimed with the open road, stinking of stale sweat, very lost in spirit, 21-year old Leo rolls into his grandmother’s daily life from months of cycling the Trans-America Trail, over 4,000 miles continental coast to coast. Unannounced, he arrives in the middle of the night at what he supposes is just a stop-over, a way-station, before he moves on to a life that, in his confusion, he can’t even imagine. His 91-year old grandmother, Vera Joseph, is struggling with the end-game of her own life, the shrinking of a way of being that was once large, forceful, and competent. She’s seen too much and lived too long to chide Leo. She just gives him the shelter of her presence, their shared family past, and the ordinary luxuries of food, laundry, and a bed. Leo ends up staying a month.

In the dramatically conventional sense, 4,000 Miles is nearly plotless. Indeed, the playwright was “very aware of and interested in and worried about how little plot there was.” Instead, Herzog has chosen to structure the play as a realistic slice of life that is subtly shaped by the evolving relationship between these two unlikely roommates. It’s a penetrating character study of two social outsiders whose efforts to connect and to understand one another help each one to come to terms with the realities of mortality and loss.

Vera is an old Leftie, a card-carrying Communist from the era when to be a Communist, for many people, was to be compassionate, activist, and insistent that the whole of society (represented by the government) had to be responsible for the welfare of each member. Her deceased husband, Leo’s grandfather, had been a prolific writer advocating for the Party. She has always been a political activist. But extreme age has reduced Vera’s world. Comically and poignantly, she endures the frustrating indignities of old age. Her arthritic hands don’t work. A word person in an apartment filled with books, the right word is constantly escaping her. In metaphors for the miscommunication between Vera and Leo, she can’t talk without her false teeth, can’t hear without her hearing aids. She has a computer, but has never turned it on. She’s the last survivor of her octogenarian group and accustomed to losing friends almost daily.

Leo is a kind of counter-culture child, raised by a family with vaguely progressive political leanings, but so permissive that Leo is somewhat directionless. Politically, he wants the social good and espouses a loose collection of causes, but he doesn’t have the coherent political philosophy of his grandparents. He is amazed by the books written by his grandfather, but condescending about (and perhaps envious of) his grandparents’ idealism. Leo’s generation has a more cynical, go-it-alone approach to life. On the other hand, his generation knows too much about the outcomes of Communism in the Soviet Union and China for those once-easy certainties to be a comfortable choice. This information wasn’t available to his grandparents’ generation. Post-college, Leo has embarked on his trans-continental bicycle journey as a chosen direction that substitutes for his indecision. On the journey, Leo suffers a tragic loss. He continues alone in silence, feeling estranged from his family, isolated from his girlfriend, and deeply confused.

The journey between generations proves to be much longer and in certain ways harder than the journey of miles that Leo has just completed. But Vera and Leo persevere through the conflict of expectations and their differing world views. Without so many words, Vera teaches Leo about responsibility towards other people.

Leo’s company sustains Vera. They are able to share their memories of those they’ve lost. Although the playwright refuses to tie the play up in a bow, the characters are compellingly stronger by play’s end.

In many ways, Amy Herzog’s slice of life theatre is based in her own biography. The character of Vera Joseph, who also appears in Herzog’s After the Revolution (2010), is recognizably a portrait of Leepee Joseph, Herzog’s own grandmother. Now well into her middle-90s, Leepee was recently out there protesting with Occupy Wall Street and has been an active Socialist all her life. Like Vera, she was married to Joe Joseph, the Communist writer. Vera’s past is drawn from Leepee’s. Herzog says she drew Leo a little bit from one of her cousins. But, mainly, Leo’s experiences are based in Amy Herzog’s own. After graduating from Yale, Herzog undertook a grueling cross-country bike ride with Habitat for Humanity. Then she moved in for six months with grandmother Leepee in the New York apartment that she reproduces for 4,000 Miles. There was tension between the two generations, but a lot of love and eventual understanding as well. Much of Leo’s rapproachment with Vera was mined from Herzog’s memories of this time. After working as an actress for a short period, Herzog realized that she loved writing more than acting and returned to Yale’s School of Drama for an MFA in Playwriting. She’s in her mid-30s and already celebrated as one of America’s best young playwrights. 4,000 Miles was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won both an OBIE for Best New American Play and the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award.

The opinions expressed by the writer are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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