Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of The How and the Why, Richard's recent reviews of Beach Blanket Babylon and Colossal and Eddie's reviews of Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller and Talking Heads
Life is filled with disappointment and regretnot this production of Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles, which is a delightful surprise, but for the characters in her play, disappointment and regret stretch out behind them like a long and winding road.
For Leo (Jesse Lumb) that road is a literal one: as the play opens, he is arriving at the Greenwich Village apartment of his Grandmother Vera (Shirley Nilsen Hall) after riding his bicycle all the way cross-country from Seattle. The trip was a way for Leo to escape the judgment of his mother, who is clearly disappointed in the choices he's made. For Vera, the road of regret is figurative: at 91, her rearview is filled with failed or unsatisfying marriages, friends who've passed on, and a world that failed to live up to her still strongly held communist principles because the revolution never came.
None of this is to say that Novato Theater Company's 4000 Miles is in any way depressing, even though deathboth tragic and expectedis never far from view. Rather, it exudes a gentle familial charm. Yes, Leo hasn't spoken to his family in weeks. Yes, Vera confesses that the only man who ever did it for her in the bedroom wasn't one of the men she married. Yes, at times things get tense between Leo and Vera. But their disappointments and regrets don't make them tragic, they make them human, and it is this very naturalistic humanity that gives 4000 Miles its overall optimistic outlook.
Once Grandma Vera is over the surprise of seeing her grandson (Leo made his entrance at 3:00 a.m.), they settle into a quiet sort of domesticity. As the nonagenarian Vera, Shirley Nilsen Hall is completely convincing as a woman some two decades older than she. The slow, stooped, careful movement is absolutely spot-on. (So are the clothes she's given to wear by costume designer Marie Maier: functional, not frumpy, but most definitely not fashionable.) Her task is aided by the equally spot-on character Herzog has created. Vera's habits and approach to life seem very true when I compare them to the seniors in my life. We witness her frugality and hatred of waste. Serving a danish to Leo she says, "I got a few of those last month at the senior center. They had a buffet table and at the end they were going to throw it all away. Tell me if that's completely thawed." We see her reticence at participating in the digital revolution. Her MacBook still has the protective film covering the screen, and she still uses a rotary phone.
Jesse Lumb endows Leo with a kind of loose-limbed, chillax attitude, yet still finds a very strong current of anxiety and fear and woundedness. For wounded and confused Leo certainly is. His long ride is successful on one levelhe made it all the way. Started somethingand finished it. (Though he confesses he has yet to truly finish: his ride began with his back tire in the Pacific, and won't be complete until he dips his front tire in the Atlantic.) But there was tragedy and hardship along the way, and when he finally pulls into Manhattan, it's the middle of the night and he's broke.
Over the next few weeks, Verawithout really trying to, or even knowing that it's happeningbrings Leo through to a new stage in his life. Her rent-controlled ($1200 a month for two bedrooms and a downtown view!) apartment serves as a sort of refueling station or halfway house for Leo. He regathers his energy, settles some emotional business with his sort-of girlfriend Bec (Emily Radosevich), has an encounter with slightly unhinged art student Amanda (Courtney Yuen), and prepares himself to keep moving forward in life with a fuller understanding of what disappointment and regret (and adult life) look like. You'll leave the Novato Theater with a fuller understanding of what humanity looks like.
4000 Miles runs through April 17, 2016, at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $27 general, $24 for seniors and students, 21 for NTC members and $12 for children under 12. Tickets and additional information are available at www.novatotheatercompany.org or by calling 415-883-4498.