Leo is having a rough summer. His girlfriend has soured on him, his mother is angry with him, and his family is confused by some of his recent behavior. He has been riding his bicycle alone across the country for months when he shows up at the door of his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment at 3 in the morning. Surprised, Vera questions him for a minute but soon scuttles off to put in her teeth. Amy Herzog’s Obie-winning play, 4000 Miles, begins with this moment of reconnection between a grubby, sad-faced 21-year-old and the concerned elderly woman, who urges him to shower and get some rest.
“Vera recognizes that she’s been selected to be the person Leo has appeared to and wants to stay with. It is a great gift to her. And she’s very concerned about his well-being. She knows that he’s got a problem and he’s not talking about it,” said Suzanne Lederer, 70, who plays Vera in the New Mexico Actors Lab (NMAL) production of 4000 Miles, opening at Teatro Paraguas on Thursday, Aug. 8.
Director Robert Benedetti, 80, said that the arc of Leo’s character is the fundamental action of the play. When he arrives in Vera’s hallway, Leo is very self-centered and lacking in self-awareness. “But he has his heart opened. That’s what touched me most about the play: It’s about somebody who is learning to love and to care for others under the influence of an older authority figure.”
“This is the rare theatrical production that achieves perfection on its own terms,” Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times of the 2012 production of 4000 Miles at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. “Those terms are not the stuff of fire-breathing drama, full of flinty confrontation and soul-baring emotional revelation, drama with a capital ‘D.’ Ms. Herzog’s gift is to capture the precise texture of life in all its ambiguity and lack of tidy resolution, while still holding our attention fast by tapping into the compassion and curiosity about human nature that draws us (let us hope) to the theater.”
Benedetti’s take on 4000 Miles is less philosophical than Isherwood’s. The play’s lessons about intergenerational mentoring and camaraderie can be put to use by audiences in Santa Fe, a town where, to him, the most visible people are Vera’s age and Leo’s age. “Our culture is in real trouble in terms of initiating young people into adulthood,” he said with a sigh. “There’s been some sort of breakdown. What Vera does to Leo is an initiation ritual.”
Leo stays with Vera for longer than the couple of days he had originally intended, and — with both drama and comedy — they test their bonds and boundaries as relations and roommates. She is an old Marxist type and he is an environmentally minded neo-hippie who spent a semester at Evergreen State College in Washington. Though Leo and Vera get along well and have plenty in common, they are separated by cultural and generational ideas about family connections and social responsibility.
When she and Leo discuss how they communicate with his mother (Vera’s stepdaughter), with whom neither has an easy relationship, he tells Vera that it’s really not her burden to bear.
“You can’t take all that on,” he says. “You have to let her find her own way.”
Vera tells him that she believes in a society where people help each other. “The point is you help people, it’s about the community, it’s not about ‘I do what’s best for me and you do what’s best for you.’ ”
The playwright, Herzog, based Vera on her own grandmother, Leepee. In interviews, Herzog has called Leepee sharp-tongued and quick, very loving and very critical. This is Vera’s second appearance in one of Herzog’s autobiographical plays: She first showed up in After the Revolution (2010), which was about Herzog’s step-grandfather’s leftist political activities.
Leo’s character is based on one of Herzog’s cousins. He is played by Mickey Dolan, 20, who moved to Santa Fe in 2013 from suburban Chicago. He graduated from New Mexico School for the Arts in 2017; 4000 Miles is his first play with NMAL. Lederer has appeared in several of its productions, including The Gin Game in 2018. If she looks familiar, it may be because she spent the 1980s as a character actress, appearing in such popular television shows as Remington Steele, Family Ties, and St. Elsewhere. She has also acted on and off Broadway.
Lederer, a native New Yorker, said that her character is a quintessential New York grandmother, culturally Jewish and politically progressive. “She’s very close to my gene pool,” she said. “Mickey and I were discussing this about a week ago. I can tell by the phraseology that she uses, by how she approaches subjects.”
Lederer has a noticeable but not particularly heavy New York accent. During a table reading of the script, she slipped into a slightly old-fashioned, Yiddish-inflected dialect. The thoughtful and affable Dolan transformed into a reticent and somewhat annoyed Leo, a young man with too much on his mind and no sense of how worried everyone is about him. Even early in the rehearsal process, the characters were already well-defined by the actors, with the chemistry of a grandmother and grandson who love each other but don’t know each other very well.
“Leo is probably the most complicated character I’ve played,” Dolan said. “He’s young, so he thinks he’s on top of the world. We’re a similar age, and we’re going through some similar things, which is cool to play.” ◀
▼ 4000 Miles
▼ Opens 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8; runs 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 25; after-show talk-backs Aug. 11 and 18
▼ Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie
▼ $25; 505-424-1601, nmactorslab.com