by Clark Groome

The audience’s reaction to the opening night of the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” confused me. From its almost continuous raucous laughter, the audience must have thought or actually felt it was viewing a laugh-a-minute comedy. My take on the play was quite different.

When the young Leo (Davy Raphaely) arrives at his grandmother Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment at 3 a.m. after a tragedy-marred cross-country bike trip, we witness the honest and sometimes awkward deepening of a relationship that these two lonely people need. Their ages may be vastly different — he’s in his early 20s, she (Beth Dixon) is an octogenarian — but their loneliness and needs are similar.

Because of their age difference and because of Vera’s left-wing history, there is lots that goes on in their interaction that is funny. It is the kind of humor that grows naturally from the interaction between two people as they get to know each other, not the one-liner-driven comedy that the audience seemed to be experiencing.

I’m not here to review the audience, but its reaction, I think, missed the play’s point. The tragedy Leo faced on his bicycle trip and his complicated relationship that seems to be ending with his girlfriend Bec (Shannon Marie Sullivan) have some humorous moments but are also painful to hear about and witness.

As funny as it is, the scene in which he brings home Amanda (Leigha Kato) for a night of debauchery and sex (which never happens because Vera, predictably, walks in just as things are heating up), the central emotion evoked was sadness.

As Vera courageously deals with the indignities of aging — dentures, a hearing aid, occasional bouts of not being able to find or remember the right words or to find a misplaced set of keys or a checkbook — the humor of the situation is far outweighed by the courage she displays and the increasing interdependence these two display.

Leo’s family problems — he hasn’t talked to his parents in weeks — and Vera’s sympathy with and agreement about them remind me of an exchange between the new grandmother Carol Burnett and “Jeopardy” host Alex Trebek. Carol asked Alex if he knew why grandparents and grandchildren get along so well. Alex said he didn’t. Carol, as only she could, said with great good humor and total understanding of family dynamics, “Because they have a common enemy.”

That may be a little extreme, but it applies here. As Leo’s visit extends from the expected couple of days to several weeks, his relationship with Vera, for all the bickering and generational differences, deepens.

“4000 Miles” is a fine play. Under Mary B. Robinson’s direction, it is getting a solid production (through Nov. 10).

Beth Dixon and Davy Raphaely are very good as Vera and Leo. Their interactions, played out in many short scenes in the 95-minute one-act, are often laughter-inducing and heart-breaking at the same time.

The physical production — Jason Simms’ rent-controlled apartment that anyone with common sense would kill to inhabit, Elizabeth Hope Clancy’s terrific costumes, Thom Weaver’s evocative lighting and Bart Fasbender’s subtle sound — is a thing of beauty.

“4000 Miles” is a family comedy/drama that is never cloying, overwrought or predictable. It captures, unlike so many similar but less well-realized plays of its ilk, the reality of its two appealing characters in a way that doesn’t offer any answers about their futures but raises hope that they will continue to grow and heal some of their wounds.

For tickets call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.