'4000 Miles' in 90 minutes

4000 Miles is the distance traveled by bike from the west coast to the front door of a Greenwich Village apartment where an elderly widow welcomes in her road-weary grandson. 4000 Miles is also the title of Amy Herzog's novella of a play, which opened last week at A.C.T.

While the parent-child relationship is the stuff of much drama, Herzog unconventionally bypasses the middle generation to focus on the grandparent-grandchild relationship.

Grandma Vera is not the warm-hearted, cookie-baking type you see on T.V. Nor do she and her grandson, Leo, have the corny connection that's so often depicted when grannies are depicted at all. Under Mark Rucker's low-key direction, Herzog's play is honest and unsentimental. But it's a slight play -- short on theatrical drama. While there's something to be said for restraint, this play rolls scenically along, but really doesn't gain traction or momentum.

Even so, Susan Blommaert' performance as the octogenarian Vera is sharp and intelligent. Vera is a no-nonsense straight-shooter, a cultured Manhattanite, strong-willed and quick-witted. Blommaert's Vera holds our full attention. Refreshingly, she's neither the archetypal kindly granny nor a caricature of a curmudgeonly coot. When Leo shows up, Vera doesn't push him to call his worried mother. Her bond with her daughter is likewise cool and Leo's estrangement from his mom is something she can relate to, even though the audience never gets to go down that road.


Reggie Gowland's Leo is less specific -- less character-driven. He is a man with a past. An Oregon "mountain man" and self-proclaimed hippie, Gowland makes this "it's all good" type credible. Leo's Zen vibe has been derailed by the ordeal he experienced on his cross-country trip. So, he has arrived in New York with baggage. More than fits in a set of panniers, if this metaphor can be further milked.

Some will be unpacked for us. Leo, his girlfriend and another couple -- their best friends -- had originally planned to bike across the country together. But the foursome crumbled and Leo has arrived in New York alone. While the telling of Leo's back story is vital, it's the casual couch time between Vera and Leo that is the heart of the play. Leo has a few visitors (Julie Lawler plays Bec, his former girlfriend and Camille Mana plays Amanda, a girl he picks up) but 4000 Miles is richest as Leo comes to know his grandmother.

Vera tells him of her past marriages, matter-of-factly revealing details of her sex life and her husband's infidelities. She tells him a bit (not enough) about her politics -- she's a former communist. Leo later reassures Amanda that "a lot of people were communists back then. It was like recycling -- something you did to be socially responsible." Amanda, a Chinese American who "hates communists," at first seems like a stock floozy, but Mana surprises us with her sharp, clever and funny performance.

The play balances the comedy and the pathos pretty nicely, but Rucker's production does have a bit of a dramedy feel with easy laugh lines and a static set where characters come and go through the apartment door. Vera has more senior hours than senior moments; she struggles (too briskly) to recall words, misplaces things and accuses Leo of pilfering. She bickers over the phone with her next door neighbor. Less comically, they check in everyday; neither wants to die alone and undetected.

The absent characters, Leo's mother and especially his adopted sister, feel like loose threads. And Herzog doesn't heed Chekhov's play-writing dictum that a loaded rifle on the wall in Act One needs to go off in Act Three.

4000 Miles is more of a staged short story than a play, and it's more of a gentle ride than a comprehensive voyage.

4000 Miles runs through February 10, 2013, at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit act-sf.org.

All photos: Kevin Berne.