The term "generation gap" was coined in the 1960s to describe the chasm separating baby boomers from their parents with regard to values, attitudes, lifestyle and speech. In 4000 Miles, when Leo (James Bartelle) bikes across the country to visit his 91-year-old grandmother Vera (Carol Sutton) in Greenwich Village, there is plenty of miscommunication, but also a great deal of compassionate understanding.
Written by celebrated playwright Amy Herzog and directed by Beau Bratcher for The NOLA Project, 4000 Miles conveys the complexities of intergenerational relationships and the affection that endures beneath the surface. Winner of the 2012 Obie Award for Best New American Play and finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 4000 Miles masterfully and subtly captures the essence of each generation's belief system through small gestures and ordinary conversation taking place in Vera's living room.
The dialogue is realistic, unvarnished and perhaps intentionally unexciting. Leo recently suffered a severe personal loss and Vera feels desperately lonely. Sutton delivers a stellar performance and Bartelle aptly portrays a young man struggling to find direction, yet the drama drags without visceral turning points to clearly demonstrate their deepening bond. Due to her hearing loss, Vera even misses one of Leo's heart-wrenching stories and, therefore, the opportunity to comfort him.
Leo, 21, has arrived at Vera's apartment in the middle of the night, sweaty and unannounced. Once inside, he spouts platitudes about taking back power, giving his relationship space and "passive-aggressive bullshit." Vera is frustrated by being unable to find her own words, but also imparts wisdom. Leo borrows $50 from her to scale a climbing wall at a gym, and Vera hobbles unsteadily around her apartment. Over several weeks, they share personal stories, and Leo assuages her grief.
Vera's husband, who died a decade ago, was the one who "did the explainin'." Even so, Vera is opinionated and was a member of the Communist Party in her youth. The playwright based Vera on her own grandmother, who was politically active in New York, and Leo on her free-spirited cousin. Vera still shows signs of having been a firebrand and looks askance at her grandson's aimlessness.
"Sounds like a lot of New Age baloney," she says, following one of her grandson's diatribes. "It sounds stupid!"
While in New York, Leo hopes to rekindle a relationship with Bec, a former girlfriend, but Bec (Annie Cleveland) is skeptical, accusing him of being immature.
Vera reveals her feisty side in a conversation with Bec. "It's more out of stupidity than anything else," she says when explaining male behavior. The tipsy Amanda (Anna Toujas) brings a lighter note as a girl Leo picks up in a bar and tries to seduce.
The slowly unfolding story can feel too talky, and begs for more action. For 4000 Miles to soar, there must be an interpersonal chemistry and profound devotion between Leo and Vera, and it never really gets there. Still, the intergenerational relationship shows the transformative ability love has to foster healing.