Midway through Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” Leo tells his grandmother, Vera, about the freak accident when his friend Mika was killed. She sits patiently but doesn’t react as he talks. Then she tells him she only heard part of the story because she didn’t have her hearing aid on.
The scene epitomizes the distance separating grandmother and grandson in Herzog’s sweet and subtle play, making its regional premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company.
They care about each other, but they can’t completely or consistently connect. Part of it is due to the unbridgeable generation gap, but a more important reason is that they are both at a point in their lives where their focus is turned on themselves. Leo is trying to cope with the effects of an extremely traumatic experience, and Vera, a once articulate, outspoken and self-possessed woman, is dealing with the frustrating realities of aging, where “I can’t find my words.”
Leo has just concluded a cross-country bike trip from Seattle to New York and ends up at his grandmother’s apartment in the middle of the night because, “I don’t know where else to be.” As a couple of days evolve into a much longer stay, the two share pieces of their lives, establish a routine of being together and come to depend on each other. In one of the play’s funniest scenes, they get high together, and Vera shocks Leo by expressing her dissatisfaction with her sex life through two marriages. The two end up giggling like a couple of teenagers. Jesse Portillo’s mellow, psychedelic lighting heightens the effect.
As Leo and Vera, Austin Grant and Joyce Cohen settle seamlessly into the rhythms of a sometimes prickly, sometimes warm relationship. Grant vacillates between brash and uncertain as Leo searches for a new direction for his life, and Cohen does a masterful job of portraying a much older woman. Her facial expressions and mannerisms convey the determination and confusion of someone clinging to her independence as she feels it slipping away.
Leo also has an up-and-down relationship with his girlfriend, Bec, who is going to school in New York and seems equally adrift. She tellingly tells Leo, “When I’m not furious with you, I’m really worried about you.” Shelby Anderson portrays Bec with this exact mix of resentment and genuine concern.
Lily Hye Soo Dixon is flamboyant and funny as Amanda, a young woman Leo brings home one night. She ricochets around the apartment, chattering incessantly about herself, and K.L. Alberts’ outrageous costume, complete with chopsticks in her hair, makes her look exactly like the “international art star” she longs to be.
Adrianne Moore’s direction has a low-key, relaxed feel that matches the flow of Leo and Vera’s gradually unfolding relationship. Keven Myrhe’s set, with its many books and well-chosen art objects, has the comfortable, lived-in look of the home of an aging intellectual.
In its exploration of a multigenerational relationship, “4000 Miles” has a gentle, but insightful, touch that gradually reveals the ties that bind and separate in a family. Everything that happens here is under the surface, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
SLAC’s production of Amy Herzog’s portrait of family relationships is unassuming, low-key, and very satisfying.
When • Reviewed on April 10; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. through May 4.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Running time • 90 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets • $15 to $42 with discounts for students, seniors, groups and those under 30. Call 363-7522 or visit www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for tickets and information.