by Hugh Hunter
“4000 Miles,” now running at Old Academy Players in East Falls, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013. Directed by Charlotte Higgins and produced by Terri Bateman, it centers on Leo Joseph Connell, who likes to think about the past, is self-indulgent in the present and has no future.
Playwright Amy Herzog has written several plays in which she uses her own family background, especially the separation between the fiery political left of the 1930s and modern thinking. “4000” is full of reminiscences that are inherently interesting, but the play is more like an essay than a drama.
Actor Thomas Boland has the unenviable task of trying to breathe life into a character who sees no future in the present. Leo goes on a cross-country bicycle trip that begins in Seattle and ends up at his grandmother’s apartment in NYC. While grandmom is full of inner direction, Leo is aimless and libertine.
In the role of 91-yr old grandmother Vera, actress Loretta Lucy Miller gives the show its liveliest moments. Miller creates a vividly comic-tragic old woman who struggles with memory and emotion. Delightfully unpredictable, Vera is full of conflicting traits. What makes her so life-like is that you never know if Vera is really so full of variety or in the middle stages of losing her grip.
“4000” runs for 90 minutes without intermission, and the production itself is generally strong. All action takes place in Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment, which evokes her old life with all its books and family photos. (Set design, Charlotte Higgins, Terri Bateman, Chris McCollum, Nancy Frick). Old Academy puts their new lighting system to good use; scenes are always quick-paced and short, ending in darkness with moody guitar music.
Bec and Amanda are Leo’s two love interests. But as in all matters, Leo seems incapable of taking a genuine action. In both cases it is the women who have to make the key decisions. Rachel Diamond and Kimie Muroya are fine in their roles, but neither acting nor other elements of the production fully rescue “4000” from its torpor.
Like Amy Herzog’s own grandmother, Vera is a communist, as are all her old friends . Herzog wants you to see how that history plays out with the new generation. It turns out Vera’s communism means little to Leo. He takes in the information, but it does not resonate.
Herzog identifies some aspects of modern ennui, but it is a tough slog to write a play where the main character is essentially passive. Leo rehashes old events and picks up new bits of information, but he is more like a spectator of his own life than a person, or to put it differently, a tool for a playwright to make sociopolitical observations.
Old Academy Players is located at 3540-44 Indian Queen Lane. “4000 Miles” will run through Nov 22. Reservations available at 215-843-1109.