Thank God for understanding grandmothers.
And thank our lucky stars for director Roy Surette’s solid, production of Amy Herzog’s intergenerational play, 4000 miles at the Centaur until April 20. Essentially, the play is about blood ties, about the relationship between Vera, a 91-year old non-judgmental grandmother (Clare Coulter) and her 21-year old grandson, Leo. (Nathan Barrett.)
Grandma, as it happens is an independent left-wing idealist who cut her teeth during the McCarthy era. She’s losing her hearing, she’s frail and a bit forgetful, but still mentally tough and perceptive, Leo is a clumsy, sweet 21-year old stud, who has ridden his bicycle 4,000 across the country in search of himself. The evening opens as Leo turns up at Vera’s Manhattan apartment at 3 a.m. looking for a pit stop. The grandson is one of those earnest, athletic eco-activists who, at first glance, appears to be two spokes short of a wheel. Even his ex-girlfriend, Bec (Liana Montoro) can’t quite figure him out.
The play is really a poignant conversation in which both characters are unsure of what to say to each other, but both know they need to listen. As Vera, Clare Coulter is no stereotypical raging granny or a comic Golden Girl.. She gives us a dignified, polished geriatric gem of a performance. Her Vera is sublime, a shrewd woman who has seen it all and manages to still be enthusiastic about life. Barrett’s Leo appears a bit bewildered and low key at first, but he is convincing as a self-indulgent, emotional shut-out.
The two confide in one another, squabble, smoke some pot and enact the difficult truth of Vera’s wisdom: Friends, neighbors, family, lovers — all imperfect — must find a way to get along even when they don’t. “The point is you help people,” Vera insists, distilling the essence of her creed, “It’s about the community, it’s not about I do what’s best for me and you do what's best for you …”
Roy Surette has directed with a studied nonchalance that allows the simplicity of the work to suffuse the theatre and make us aware of the distances we sometimes have to travel to reach out to those we love. He is helped enormously by his set designer, Barbra Matis, who has given us an overly-cluttered age-worn Village apartment.
There are some surprising turns along the way. A neighbour we never see in the apartment across the way has a role to play. For some comic relief, Leo brings Amanda, (Li Li) a buoyant asian he has met in a bar back to Grandma’s living room for a one night stand. Li Li is a brassy live-wire who ignites a spark with hilarious and bittersweet consequences.
Liana Montoro never quite emerges as the disgruntled girlfriend, Bec. But then, she doesn’t have much to work with other than a contrived spat. The role seems to have been included as an afterthought.