Unsurprisingly, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is one of America’s most produced plays by regional theaters this season. The 2012 OBIE-winning drama and Pulitzer finalist has an intimate, likable quality, particularly in the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s fine production.
Beth Dixon plays Vera, the last of a group of elderly friends, living alone in a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. Her grandson Leo (Philadelphia actor Davy Raphaely) turns up one night at 3 a.m., sweaty and stinky from a cross-country bicycle trip from Seattle. That Herzog’s title adds an additional thousand miles to that ride’s length is an early hint that Leo’s journey is far from over.
At first, 4000 Miles teases gentle humor from the awkwardness of an undisciplined twentysomething living with a hearing-aid-wearing, set-in-her-ways old lady; the two have known each other all of Leo’s life, but they’re strangers. The play scores some “I can’t believe she said that” laughs, as when Vera asks Leo if anyone demanded sexual favors in exchange for lodging during his trip, but never sinks to sitcom levels. Leo’s where-am-I-going life questions take precedence as he confronts girlfriend Bec (Shannon Marie Sullivan) about why she backed out of the cross-country adventure. Tipsy pickup Amanda (2013 UArts graduate Leigha Kato, shown above) shares one great scene with Leo, her nascent wisdom exposing Leo’s difficulties connecting with others.
Credit these four capable actors, as well as Herzog and director Mary B. Robinson, with making their characters feel genuine and layered. There are no villains, fools or parodies here, just real people struggling to figure things out. Vera — both the role and Dixon’s performance in it — is particularly impressive. The feisty, foul-mouthed senior is a cheap comedy staple, but Dixon and Herzog (who based the character on her own grandmother) invest Vera with a rich backstory of liberal activism; she’s a powerful personality, an invitation to consider the inevitable problems of aging as peers pass away.
This delicate play’s complications build gracefully. Leo could go home to Minneapolis, but issues with his mother and adopted sister make him resist even calling. His first stop in New York is Bec’s apartment, but that’s another messy situation. Vera welcomes his company — her sole companion is the woman across the hall, and they only communicate by phone — but struggles with the physical and mental problems of aging.
The play builds to surprising revelations about Leo’s trip, which he started with best friend Micah but finished alone. The story unfolds in a long monologue that Leo shares with Vera one night, a quiet, profound release of the play’s subtly building tension, heart-wrenchingly performed by Raphaely in the near-darkness. After an intermission-less 100 minutes, we’re still in Vera’s apartment, but we have traveled a long distance in Leo and Vera’s lives.
Through Nov. 11, $46-$59, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., 215-985-0420, philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.