Playwright Amy Herzog has been lauded for her poignant family dramas: 4000 MILES was a Pulitzer finalist in 2012. In Gloucester Stage’s gentle production of the “cross country” play (running through August 17th), a sensitive young man has biked all the way from Washington state and found refuge from the slings and arrows of truly outrageous fortune in his grandmother’s New York City apartment. The cantankerous 91 year old is delighted to have his company. In the course of the play the two form an indelible bond.
The slowly meandering play gradually unfolds its secrets to reveal what drove the young man from home (although the information is at best scant) and what keeps him from returning. The back story lurks just out of reach, under the surface of the play as if Herzog is loath to go into detail. In the most touching scene of the play, the grandson finally recounts what really happened on the road but Herzog undercuts this lovely moment with a joke. (It’s a joke we’re all familiar with from countless scenes of cinematic confessions when the confessor discovers that the other person was asleep the whole time.) Director Eric C. Engel creates such an intimate, delicate connection between the two, that it’s a shame to throw it away for a laugh.
Nancy E. Carroll gives a brilliant physical portrayal etched in arthritic fingers, wobbly knees and bent spine but it’s her exquisite comic timing which carries the play, especially when the two celebrate the autumnal equinox with a little buzz. Thomas Rash is just vulnerable enough for us to plainly see he’s at odds with the world and himself. Herzog brings in two romantic possibilities for the grandson, one just ending (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) and one going nowhere (Samantha Ma) but it’s the affection we witness when he pats his grandma’s head, or she pats his, that’s the love story we care about in 4000 MILES.