Tomorrow night at the Long Wharf Theatre, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles begins previews, with its official opening next Wednesday, February 26th. Herzog, a graduate of of the Yale School of Drama and Yale College, debuted her play Belleville at the Yale Rep in 2011. Now, the well-respected slightly earlier play 4000 Miles, directed by Long Wharf's associate artistic director Eric Ting, gets its chance in New Haven. Produced at Lincoln Center Theater’s New Works program in 2011, the play won an OBIE Award in 2012 for Best New American Play and was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2013. The story of an inter-generational odd couple, of sorts, the play depicts the bonds and frictions between Leo, a twenty-one-year-old man, and Vera, his ninety-one-year-old grandmother. That difference in age means that, though family, the two characters have rather different assumptions about the world they live in. Leo has come to New York City, biking 4000 miles cross-country from Seattle to reconnect with Bec, a girl who may be through with him, and is grieving after a friend’s unexpected death, and Vera happens to have some space he can use.
To Herzog, it’s a bit surprising that the play has become so popular in regional theater—besides going up at the Long Wharf, 4000 Miles is currently being staged at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park as well. “It has little plot and is mainly a dialogue-based character piece,” Herzog says, but those qualities may be part of what makes it so popular. Given that character studies are a major interest of theater, a story that brings together different generations in a meaningful way seems tailor-made for regional theater, where the majority of patrons have seen more than a few decades of life and where, as in New Haven, younger theater-goers are apt to be involved in theater themselves. Set in 2007, 4000 Miles features a character based on a cousin several years younger than Herzog when she wrote the play—Leo's at an age when many are trying to decide their direction in life and what kind of life makes sense to them. Encountering a much older family member with very definite views on the world sets up many opportunities for the characters to reveal and discover things about themselves in small but significant ways. And that tends to make for fascinating theater.
Writing the play, for Herzog, was an effort to pay tribute to her own grandmother, who saw the play more than once, calling it “an eerie out of body experience” to see a character on-stage “lifted from her own stories.” Both Vera and Herzog’s grandmother share a past as communists in the post-World War II era, a time when persons of their political persuasion suffered much “red-baiting” and, when possible, prosecution. While a character like Vera is “necessarily engaged with political questions,” Herzog is uncertain that a domestic drama like 4000 Miles can really be called “political,” as some critics have done. With her own grandmother in mind, Herzog suggests that 4000 Miles and her earlier play After the Revolution “may have gained a political reputation unfairly.” Vera, a character in both plays, espouses communism, while her husband, recently deceased in the earlier play, was blacklisted and an actual Soviet spy. Yet Herzog questions whether her own grandmother’s stress on the importance of political art is met by her granddaughter’s plays. Herzog prefers to avoid “art with a sole message,” and rather considers her plays to be about characters with political views than plays with a particular political agenda. Her grandmother, on the other hand, felt that “art should have a political message.”
Thus part of the interest in the play is in how the values of Vera look to someone who has had none of her experiences—of the Depression, of the Second World War, of communist China, of McCarthyism, of the Vietnam War, of being devastated by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. For Leo’s generation, born in the mid-Eighties, Leftist sympathies are more likely to take the form of Green environmental issues and concerns with the global economy and its products, or perhaps with sexual freedoms and racial injustice. The play is not so much about a clash of ideologies as it is an observation about how different political climates create different kinds of responses in different generations. More to the point for Herzog, in terms of the play’s dynamics, is the theme of loss, as Leo “faces his first experience of real grief and finds questions about his life to look into.” Herzog intends her play, a comic drama, to be faithful to the kinds of interactions that can occur naturally but meaningfully between relatives thrown together by happenstance.
The other autobiographical feature of the play is that Herzog biked cross-country herself, right after graduation from Yale College in 2000, though, unlike Leo, east to west. While none of her experiences are directly incorporated in the play, she mentions a 4th of July celebration in a tiny town in Kansas that left an impression on her—a resident of the northeast all her life—in showing her a bit of small-town America at a time that was, in many ways, a turning-point in recent history.
With a sense of the vast area—4000 miles—that separates the coasts of our country—and the stretch of time—70 years—that separate the births of Vera and Leo, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, contained in one room, offers viewers a chance to stake stock of their own sense of what separates us and joins us as inter-generational Americans.
4000 Miles By Amy Herzog Directed by Eric Ting
Long Wharf Theatre February 19 - March 16, 2014