Vera (played by Patricia Conolly) talks to Leo (played by Gabriell Salgado) after he travelled 4,000 miles on his bike to see her in Palm Beach Dramaworks' 4000 Miles.
Photo by Alicia Donelan
Palm Beach Dramaworks opens its season with a touching dramedy, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles. What the play might lack in weighty dramatic conflict, it makes up for in the heartfelt contrasts of generations. As a character-driven play, it leans on outstanding execution for its success, and it could not have found a better home than PBD’s production with its casting expertise.
Patricia Conolly plays the feisty, unpredictable 91-year-old Vera, who is unexpectedly visited by her 21-year-old grandson, Leo, in the middle of the night. He just biked 4,000 miles. She doesn’t hear the doorbell at first because she doesn’t have her hearing aid in. Once she answers, Leo can’t understand her as her hand hides her mouth because she doesn’t have her teeth in. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate, so we have a comical baseline to work with.
Vera has lived in a Greenwich Village rent-controlled apartment since the beginning of time, and although she has memory lapses (her favorite phrase for filling in the blanks being “waddayacallit”), her experiences and the fact that she is a socialist from another era make for memorable and poignant moments. Her life now consists of checking on her neighbor, and vice versa, the elderly offstage character of Ginny (“that way if one of us turns up our toes, it won’t take until we start smelling to figure it out”).
The sudden appearance of Leo, who during the trip lost his biking companion and close friend, Micah, to an accident (crashing into a truck filled with Tyson chickens), sets up the primary story. He needs to heal from Micah’s death and other coming-of-age maladies, and Vera needs companionship, lacking in her life since her second husband, Joe, died.
Leo is played by Gabriell Salgado with a larger-than-life presence, his pulsating youth and urgency of living on full display. But he has not only lost his best friend; he is estranged from his mother and has a sister quandary. Furthermore, his relationship with Bec, his girlfriend, played by Stephanie Vasquez, is on the rocks. Rounding out the cast and the patchy plot is Amanda, played by Isabella Chang, a young woman Leo brings to Grandma’s apartment, hoping to get her in bed.
The four actors are making their Palm Beach Dramaworks debuts.
Conolly’s Vera, especially when juxtaposed to Salgado’s Leo, is frail, diminutive, unsure in her speech (her complaint “finding my words” resonates) and forgetful (“I can’t find my checkbook!”). But she has the wisdom of age, and Conolly handles the infirmaries and her opinions with a bold frankness, as well as the resulting laughs with aplomb.
Vera, on coming from a funeral for the last of the octogenarians she was friends with, amusingly comments to Leo: “He was a rat, very aggressive. He used to make passes at me with his wife sitting right there. She had Alzheimer’s, so she didn’t mind, but I did. Even so, he was the last one, and I don’t feel very happy about it.” So much for ambivalent sentimentality. We should all be lucky enough to have a grandma with Conolly’s spirit.
Conolly has had a seven-decade theatrical life, playing leading roles in theaters throughout the world, but mostly onstage, not in film, and thus her relative anonymity. Here’s an opportunity to see one of our finest actresses displaying her prodigious talent.
As Leo, Salgado responds to Vera’s laments with “Do you want a hug from a hippie?” Salgado wholeheartedly captures his character’s crises as well his grandmother’s aging issues. They’re both responding to rusty family ties that eventually bond them in trust, healing each other. We witness the intimacy that eventually develops across the chasm of generations.
Various subplots involving unseen characters, such as Vera’s love/hate relationship with Ginny and Leo’s conflicts with his mother and adopted sister, provide more insight into the puzzle of the main characters’ lives.
Leo’s interactions with onstage Bec and Amanda, although secondary, clue us in on Leo’s motivations and maturation. The playwright leans heavily on these exchanges for humor and pathos. Vasquez’s performance as Bec is steeped in anger and accusations. Her later interaction with Vera as the play evolves changes her harsh judgment about Leo, Vera amusingly commenting, “Men do things out of stupidity.” Vasquez finally displays a more loving side.
Amanda is a comic interlude, and quirky Chang makes the best of those moments. Here we get to know some key elements, such as Leo talking about his best friend’s death: “That’s why I’m here because I don’t know where else to be.” One of the funniest scenes in the play happens late that night when Vera suddenly appears out of her bedroom in her wraithlike nightgown, interrupting a lovemaking session on the couch, with Amanda recoiling and screaming, thinking she saw a ghost.
J. Barry Lewis directs this delicate but occasionally contrived play by punching up the dramatic moments with his excellent cast and landing all the comedic elements with a sure hand.
One of the best reasons to see any PBD production is the attention to the technical details theatergoers will surely notice, ones that are as important as the acting. Scenic design by PBD newcomer Bert Scott perfectly portrays Vera’s rent-controlled New York apartment (I should know; I’ve lived in three). Books are intrinsic to Vera’s past left-wing life, and now that she is aged, so are Post-it Notes. Although the play takes place in the 2000s, the set is from Vera’s heyday in the 1960s, rotary phone and all.
Kirk Bookman’s lighting design delineates the time of the day, and one extended but affecting scene between Vera and Leo is performed in the beautiful, muted glow from the streetlights as Leo pours out his heart, with a comic rimshot at the end.
Sound design by Roger Arnold introduces some original piano music between scenes and at times the sounds of New York: garbage trucks backing up, city sirens and barking dogs in the building, one crescendo of the latter a harbinger of a turn in the play.
Resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe has lots to work with here with the time period and 10 scenes, many requiring fast costume changes by Vera in particular (who requires nine costumes). These are everyday clothes of the 2000 era, including well-worn nightgowns and cover-ups for Vera from her earlier days, everything suitable and contributing to the look and feel of the play.
The journey ends on a bittersweet twist, like an unresolved piece of music, but the two main characters can now part changed by each other and better prepared to face an uncertain future.