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updated: 9/26/2013 6:19 AM

Great cast helps Northlight's '4000 Miles' go the distance

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  • Vera Joseph (Mary Ann Thebus) struggles with growing old while her grandson Leo (Josh Salt) struggles to grow up in Amy Herzog's "4000 Miles," in its Chicago-area premiere at Northlight Theatre.

      Vera Joseph (Mary Ann Thebus) struggles with growing old while her grandson Leo (Josh Salt) struggles to grow up in Amy Herzog's "4000 Miles," in its Chicago-area premiere at Northlight Theatre.
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • After bicycling cross country, Leo (Josh Salt) encounters his strangely distant girlfriend Bec (Caroline Neff) in Amy Herzog's family drama "4000 Miles" running through Oct. 20 at Skokie's Northlight Theatre.

      After bicycling cross country, Leo (Josh Salt) encounters his strangely distant girlfriend Bec (Caroline Neff) in Amy Herzog's family drama "4000 Miles" running through Oct. 20 at Skokie's Northlight Theatre.
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Leo (Josh Salt) arrives in the middle of the night at the New York City apartment of his grandmother Vera (Mary Ann Thebus) in Amy Herzog's "4000 Miles." Northlight Theatre artistic associate Kimberly Senior directs the Chicago-area premiere.

      Leo (Josh Salt) arrives in the middle of the night at the New York City apartment of his grandmother Vera (Mary Ann Thebus) in Amy Herzog's "4000 Miles." Northlight Theatre artistic associate Kimberly Senior directs the Chicago-area premiere.
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Leo (Josh Salt) seems to be working out some unresolved issues with the free-spirited Amanda (Emjoy Gavino) in Northlight Theatre's revival of Amy Herzog's 2011 drama "4000 Miles."

      Leo (Josh Salt) seems to be working out some unresolved issues with the free-spirited Amanda (Emjoy Gavino) in Northlight Theatre's revival of Amy Herzog's 2011 drama "4000 Miles."
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 

Amy Herzog's "4000 Miles" sneaks up on you and doesn't let you go. A quiet, family drama about growing up, growing old and finding oneself, Herzog's 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist doesn't leave a big impression. Not at first, anyway.

"Well, that was nice," I thought to myself at the conclusion of Northlight Theatre's Chicago-area premiere helmed by Kimberly Senior. But as I drove home, "4000 Miles" kept rattling around in my noggin.

Just as it did for Herzog's "Belleville," which ran this summer at Steppenwolf Theatre, my appreciation grew for this affecting (yet never schmaltzy) drama centered around 21-year-old Leo (Josh Salt, as a most amiable hipster), and his prickly, left-leaning grandmother Vera (deftly played by Mary Ann Thebus). Their brief, bothersome and occasionally embarrassing cohabitation animates the play, which unfolds in Vera's dated but cozy Greenwich Village apartment in the not-too-distant past.

The dialogue is refreshing and realistic. The characters are honest, imperfect and entirely relatable. But the best thing about "4000 Miles" is that it doesn't follow the intergenerational family drama formula, where the elder shares with her troubled grandson a lifetime of wisdom that transforms him into a content, productive man.

Here, a character's revelations and confessions don't reverberate like thunderclaps. They're revealed quietly, almost as an afterthought, to a preoccupied listener who more often than not fails to grasp their importance. Case in point: The garrulous Vera shares a terrible consequence of aging with Leo. Her grandson, however, is too distracted to offer comfort. Likewise when Leo (a classic portrait of extended adolescence by Salt) unburdens himself to Vera about his reasons for bicycling solo halfway across the country, she literally cannot hear him.

Difficult as they are to watch, moments like those make "4000 Miles" hard to forget.

Credit also rests with the savvy Senior, whose straightforward production incorporates sentiment but eschews saccharine. The drama also features fine, nicely layered work by Caroline Neff as Leo's girlfriend Bec, whose decision to pass up the cross-country bike trip in favor of college remains an unresolved issue between them. Also deserving mention is Emjoy Gavino, who plays with gleeful relish the ditsy Amanda, a design student whose romantic tryst with Leo gets interrupted by Vera.

One final word about Thebus, whose performance reconfirms her place as one of local theater's grandest dames. There is a moment early in the play when Leo first embraces his grandmother, a scene in which Thebus' skill is especially evident. Stiff and tentative at first, Vera's embrace opens up -- beginning with the way her hands curl, pulling the boy toward her. I could almost feel the affection flowing from Thebus' fingers through her arms and up into to her face where it's reflected in a beaming smile of a grandmother welcoming her wayward grandson home.

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