Herzog’s 4000 Miles Connects with a Baltimore Audience

by Holly Morse-Ellington

The award-winning play by Amy Herzog, 4000 Miles, is a writer's kind of play. Recipient of a Pulitzer Prize nomination and winner of the 2012 Obie Award for Best New American Play, the play unfolds in a Greenwich Village apartment where Leo, who's suffered an unexpected loss during a cross-country biking trip, forms a bond with his opinionated and hard-of-hearing grandmother, Vera. The relationship between Leo and Vera evolves through nuanced and subtle dialogue that strikes a deft and delicate balance of gravity and humor.

I recently attended a performance of the play at Center Stage in Baltimore and stayed for a post-performance Q&A with the cast. After a quick break, the actors emerged from backstage and joined us in chairs on the main floor. The lights had dimmed on the set behind them, but the outlines of the living room's mid-century modern sofa and bookcase remained visible. It felt as though a stage had been set for us audience members, a group of strangers, to get comfortable and chat like old friends about our evening at the theater. The actors answered questions about their favorite scenes to act, including one with marijuana. But regardless of the question, the actors kept coming back to a common answer, that Herzog's writing is the type of script actors love to get their hands on. 

"I love the writing. It's delicate and passionate," said Lois Markle, who plays the grandmother, Vera.

"[Herzog's] humor is integral and wonderful. At just the right times, she sends these gifts of humor," said Josh Tobin, who plays the grandson, Leo.

When asked how she envisioned playing this grandmother, Markle said, "The playwright is so good that you lean on that and there's no other way to go."

When asked a related question, Tobin responded that he does feel there are cues in the script for how to play this young man who struggles to find his way and cope with a recent traumatic event. "It's just about doing my best to honor what [Leo's] going through moment to moment," said Tobin about his character. "It's about empathy. It's about doing my best to imagine what it's like to be in his circumstances." Tobin added, "I think what [Herzog's] written is incredibly honest and specific and artful."  

In discussing themes, an audience member asked the actors their opinions about what, if any, statement 4000 Miles makes in regard to the American Dream. Lauren LaRocca, who plays Leo's girlfriend, Bec, believes that her character is no longer rejecting the American Dream but is establishing more traditional goals for herself in terms of education and a career.

"Something that Leo and Bec spend a lot of time or a lot of energy doing is rejecting stereotypical notions of the American Dream," said LaRocca. "I think that's part of why they are now at odds, [because of] Bec's desire to go to college and achieve in ways that Leo thinks are more stereotypical in feeding into the system. They are both struggling with what the American Dream is and how they live within it or outside of it." 

In her essay, "The Perennial Garden of the Great American Family Drama," Catherine Maria Rodriguez writes of Herzog's 4000 Miles and After the Revolution that the plays are "prime examples of a theatrical phenomenon that is distinctly-albeit not exclusively-American." Rodriguez compares this uniquely American vein of playwriting found in Herzog's work to classics like Death of a Salesman, Glass Menagerie, and A Raisin in the Sun. 

"In this perennial garden," Rodriguez says, "a particular strain has cropped up: multiplay series with family trees that branch out to multiple generations and roots that stretch across the eras." Rodriguez continues, "And it's to this strain of the Great American Family Drama that Herzog's two semi-autobiographies belong."

An audience member asked Markle, who acts in both plays currently featured at Center Stage, which of the two is her favorite.

"I enjoy both of them more having read each of them, and yet I love each of them by themselves," she responded.

With regard to 4000 Miles, the script's dialogue is especially sharp in its restraint. While an explosive argument or two creates instant high drama, just as effective but more difficult to pull off is sustaining tension through indirect forms of communication such as body language and pregnant pauses. It's easy to imagine that another cast could have overacted these quiet roars and misunderstood Herzog's writing. But this cast emanates a stage presence that shows how connected they feel to the script.

Tobin said, "I just responded to it very immediately and viscerally and I fell in love with [Leo]. That's always a really rich place to start for me." Tobin continued, "Her writing is very actable. You pick it up and it makes an instinctive sense to you as an actor. It's so rewarding to work on something like that."

Together, the cast and the script deliver a stage production that evolves from actors' dialogue into a rich and intricate rendering of family relationships.        

The Herzog Festival, featuring 4000 Miles and After the Revolution, continues until May 24 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org for tickets.