He is a 27-year-old in crisis and is so close to his grandmother that he has tattooed her wedding anniversary on his arm. She is a healthy 96-year-old widower who maintains an active social life and drives everywhere, including on a 4-wheel-drive road to her small ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
This is my family.
On Sunday in Santa Fe I saw the New Mexico Actors Lab performance of “4000 Miles,” a play about the relationship between a strong 91-year-old widow and her troubled 21-year-old grandson.
Meanwhile, the program notes tell us that the playwright Amy Herzog based the character of the grandmother Vera (Suzanne Lederer) on her own grandmother and the grandson Leo (Mickey Dolan) is based on a cousin of the author who, like Leo, lost his best friend.
When do fiction and fact stop merging? They never do.
The real subject of “4000 Miles” is communication and the obstacles it faces, including generational and physical. “I hate not being able to find my words,” Vera complains as she repeatedly halts mid-sentence at a loss for how to continue. She also fails often to hear what is said to her, including the most dramatic speech of the play in which Leo describes how is best friend is suffocated beneath a truckload of chickens while bicycling across country.
Generational chasms magnify the difficulty of communication, as illustrated in the opening scene.
“Have you eaten anything?” Vera asks Leo.
“I’m cool,” Leo responds.
“That’s not what I asked you,” an irritated Vera shoots back.
“4000 Miles” is a comedy. It is often played for laughs, and it ends on a happy note, for although Leo and Vera never stop having difficulty communicating on a semantic level, they bond tightly on an emotional level. Herzog’s message is an unusual one for a writer: maybe words don’t really much matter.
Although the play has multiple scenes, it is performed in a single 90-minute act on one set, the living room of Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment decorated with symbols of her Communist Party membership.
Robert Benedetti, who both directed and designed the performance, says, “This play makes me feel good. Nowadays that is a blessing indeed. I hope it does the same for you.”
He keeps the action moving swiftly and agilely, although occasionally two actors talk over each other making both hard to understand. I wished, however, that Benedetti made Leo, who is exhausted, has just biked 2,000 miles, slept outside for weeks and just experienced the first great tragedy of his young life, look scruffier and a bit down and out, rather than the clean-shaven and clean-cut youth he appears to be.
(Vera does complain about his stench and urges him to take a shower.)
The focus of the play is really Vera, played skillfully and believably by Lederer, a veteran of Broadway, off Broadway and television. Except for her auditory and verbal slips, her Vera is a a tough, evocative woman who has been through two husbands and a barrage of hard times. She is a wonderful and engaging character.
Dolan’s Leo morphs from a sullen and withdrawn waif into an emotional adult who is navigating a collage of crises, not only the death of his close friend but his traumatic and ambivalent relationship with his adopted sister and his off-and-on relationship with two girlfriends (Alyssa Bonnano as Amanda and Robyn Rikoon as Bec).
Although overshadowed by Lederer, Dolan, too, is a skilled professional who has performed with the Santa Fe Playhouse and Santa Fe Performing Arts as well as in a number of films, including “Get Shorty, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” “Into the Wormhole” and the upcoming Netflix series “Daybreak.”
Herzog’s script has some witty lines, such as the conversation stopper, “We are at a juncture where more talking is not better than less talking.”
“4000 miles” (the title refers to Leo’s roundtrip cross-country bike trip) opened in New York in 2011, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won an OBIE award.
The play continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays until Aug. 25 at Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie in Santa Fe. For information and tickets go to nmactorslab.com or call 505-424-1601.