Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: (Montreal / Theatre) 4000 Miles

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Growing up and getting old
Herzog’s 4000 Miles gets loving treatment at Centaur
Sarah Deshaies

Leo shows up in the middle of the night, schlepping his dirty bike and worldly possessions. Ringing the bell at his grandmother’s Greenwich Village home, the 21-year-old is seeking physical and mental refuge. Awoken by the buzzer, Vera opens the door in her nightgown. “Are you high?” she demands. Leo almost leaves right then and there. But he doesn’t.

A self-described hippie, Leo is running from obligations, family and a summertime tragedy that he is reluctant to confront. Vera is lonely but stubborn, ensconced in a home with memories of her long-dead husband and their radical socialist past. Though they are both progressive lefties of different ages, the gulf between these two now de-facto roommates is decades-long and miles apart. He is trying to find his way, and she is losing her way of life. 

Vera recognizes her grandson’s 'me generation' qualities, and urges him to the kind of selflessness and community that was and is a hallmark of her life. Leo, seeing her frailty, finds his presence needed and wanted.  

This tale of friendship needs neither dripping sentimentality nor precious realizations to craft a moving parable about family and life.

Acclaimed playwright Amy Herzog built the cantankerous lefty Vera by borrowing liberally from her own grandmother, Leepee Joseph. The radical nonagenarian was still trooping out Occupy Wall Street protests and handing out leaflets in public up until recently. Joseph passed away at the age of 96 the previous year.

Canadian treasure Clare Coulter, who incarnates Vera, indicated that she also drew inspiration from a godmother and cousin who lived into their 90s. Coulter inhabits Vera and her spacious bedclothes with verve and uncanny realness. 

Speaking of her co-star Nathan Barrett, Coulter told this writer in an earlier interview: “It’s very rare to find someone who is artistically a ‘soulmate’, and Nathan is like that for me. [...] I feel enormously connected to his heart and the soul of this young boy who’s just come out of theatre school.” High praise from Coulter, a Centaur regular who notably took on the role of Lear last year in Toronto. Their chemistry is alive and crackling. 

Barrett, who is fresh off his own bike odyssey from Brooklyn to New Orleans to fundraise, gives a measured and realistic performance. The small cast is rounded out by Liana Montoro as Leo’s suffering girlfriend, Bec, and Li Li with a hilarious turn as a petite but explosive art student he brings home one night. 

The set is like another member of the cast, like a picture cut from the magazine of another era. The detail is extraordinary, from Vera’s New York Times arts section to the outer brick layer of the apartment, tucked at the sides of the stage. Books spill out from everywhere, and warm morning and cool evening light suffuse Vera’s home with realism. 

While the story sometimes has the hallmarks of a sitcom (making out with a drunk girl at your grandma’s - what could go wrong?) the plot is maybe the least important part of 4000 Miles. The mood and the relationship between Vera and Leo has to suffice, and it does. 

The show is a gem, a love letter to the bond between generations and a reminder that we can learn from each other at any age.

March 25 - April 20 26
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission

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