I love plays that make me work. Amy Herzog’s 2011 comedy/drama, 4000 Miles, is such a play. Not only does it demand full attention during the performance but I found myself pondering it for days thereafter. Ambiguity could almost be considered the fifth character in this play.
When the curtain rises, 21 year-old Leo has arrived unexpectedly, at 3:00 AM, at the Manhattan apartment of his 91 year-old grandmother, Vera. Estranged from his parents for reasons that are not entirely revealed, Leo leaves his Minnesota home and sets out from Seattle on a cross-country bicycle trek with his best friend, Micah. Leo arrives in New York alone.
While Leo and Vera are the principals, the play is not so much an exploration of their relationship with each other as a study of the arc of their respective characters during the time they spend together. Their relationship is informed by the back story each brings into the room. Some of that back story is revealed as the play progresses. Some is alluded to but never fully exposed. The challenge to the audience is to fill in the missing pieces.
Reading the play before seeing it, I had the impression that it was Vera’s story being revealed by her interaction with Leo. There is some truth in that. Vera is increasingly alone and confronting the inevitable consequences of aging. Much of her life experience is revealed in the text. But at age 91, Vera has reached a point in her life when she can choose which secrets she feels she needs to keep. There aren’t many. In a way, she is liberated but the same aging process that challenges her. She has few boundaries.
By contrast, Leo is burdened by his, only partially disclosed, history. He keeps things close to the vest. We learn that Leo has made some seemingly inexplicable choices prior to his arrival in Manhattan. As some of the layers of his story are revealed, it becomes clear that we are not seeing the whole picture ….. and we are not going to.
Relationships in 4000 Miles are never quite what they seem. Leo has a close, albeit confused, relationship with his sister who we learn is adopted. She is Asian and was adopted as an infant into Leo’s Caucasian family. Leo’s girlfriend, Bec, lives in Manhattan. She was his first stop upon arriving in the city but their relationship is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty. He is loved but not welcome there. While in New York, Leo attempts to hook up with a design student, Amanda, intriguingly also Asian, but is unsuccessful in making any kind of connection. Even the central relationship of the play, that of Leo and his grandmother, Vera, has a twist. We learn that Vera was married to Leo’s grandfather but never had any children of her own. Leo’s closest relationships, aside from Micah, are with a sister and grandmother to whom he is not related by blood.
Vera is a communist who was, with her late husband, involved in the radical politics of the Peace Movement. Leo is an environmentalist who refuses to own a cellphone and worries about the carbon footprint of bananas, though apparently has no such qualms about coffee. Amanda, the daughter of immigrants, has a less theoretical view of Communism based on her family’s experiences living in Communist China. When they meet, Amanda has a band-aid on her finger, the result of a too-close encounter with a car door. She tells Leo her finger has nine colors under the bandage. Leo wants to see them but, in the end, she refuses. Unseen wounds and the intimacy and risk associated with revealing them is a recurring theme in this play.
The nature of intimate relationships is another theme. Leo is estranged from his parents and wonders whether there was ever a time when they loved each other. Twice married Vera, was never fully satisfied in her marriages so she supplemented them with a lover. Vera’s first husband was not monogamous, a fact which horrifies Bec, but Vera takes a more broad-minded view. Bec and Leo have history which both brings them together and pulls them apart. We are told tragedy has caused Micah’s parents to reconcile into a relationship that was dysfunctional to begin with.
What Leo and Vera have in common is struggle. She struggles for words to express her thoughts. Leo struggles to express himself emotionally. What brings them together is loss and the need for connection. At the end of the play, as in life, there is ambiguity. There is no neat & tidy resolution. But they appear to have helped each other come to terms with their individual realities.