Salt Lake Acting Company: ‘4000 Miles’ takes trip across generational divides
By Ellen Fagg Weist
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Apr 03 2014 09:01PM
Vera, in playwright Amy Herzog’s "4000 Miles," isn’t the type of grandmother who’s likely to nurture anybody by baking cookies. Instead, she’s struggling to remain relevant in her small world.
She’s a old-school lefty who finds Leo, her new-school lefty grandson, on her Greenwich Village doorstep in the middle of the night. He’s at the tail-end of a 4,000-mile cross-country bike trip. Before he reaches the clichéd moment of dipping his bike tire in the Atlantic Ocean, Leo finds himself emotionally lost, which is he how he comes to wind up at Vera’s.
Vera is drawn from Herzog’s activist grandmother, Leepee Joseph, who died in 2013 at age 96. The character is described as "tiny and frail but not without fortitude." Vera might be self-conscious about her dentures, her hearing aid and the words that occasionally slip her mind, but she’s up to the challenge of facing off with her grandson, who, theatergoers will come to know, has biked through tragedy.
For a time, Vera and Leo become unlikely roommates, and their deepening relationship changes both of them. This unusual odd-couple relationship will come to life at Salt Lake Acting Company on April 9-May 4. Veteran Utah actor Joyce Cohen will take on the tour de force role of Vera, while theatergoers will have the chance to witness a career in the making as Austin Grant plays Leo in his first professional stage role.
"It’s a play about a relationship in which both parties have a great deal to offer each other, but it’s not sentimental," says director Adrianne Moore. "The voices of the characters are very clear, and it’s very funny."
The actors have developed their own chemistry based on Cohen’s craft and generosity, while Grant draws upon freshness and his work ethic, Moore says.
"He’s the real deal," Cohen says of Grant, 20, a 2012 Jordan High School graduate with some film credits under his belt.
"She’s awesome," Grant says of Cohen, most recently seen in Pioneer Theatre Company’s "Other Desert Cities." "She’s excellent to play off of, she gives you lots of great stuff."
Both actors are quick to volunteer, again and again, to rehearse the scene where their characters get stoned, the director jokes.
Herzog’s play won critical praise and prestigious awards for its 2011 and 2012 New York productions. "Plays as truthful and touching and fine as Amy Herzog’s ‘4000 Miles’ come along once or maybe twice a season, if we’re lucky," The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood wrote.
Now the play is finding a national audience, with 28 professional and amateur productions scheduled this year, according to a representative from the Samuel French play publishing and licensing company.
Grant describes Leo as "freespirited, outgoing and very sincere and sensitive — in a good way. He’s very open to people and ideas and emotions." Or as another character says, he’s really milking the scruffy, bearded mountain man thing.
Vera has her own blind spots, including when she repeatedly refers to her grandson’s former girlfriend as "chubby," or when she casually shocks by telling stories about her husband’s infidelity.
Cohen is intrigued to be playing a character who upends so many stereotypes about grandmothers. "For so many years in my career, I was always older than the roles I played," Cohen says. "Now I’m getting more and more calls to do things that are older. It’s an opportunity for me to say through this character not only what the play is trying to say about that age, but my take on it as well."
Vera is feisty, opinionated and articulate — that is, when she can remember the right word. And she and Leo have much to offer each other, although they don’t realize it. "It’s a wonderful ride," she says of "4000 Miles." "You get on the train, 90 minutes and you’re done. It’s surprising, it’s funny and it’s touching."