Steel Beam Theatre closes season with Pulitzer finalist '4,000 Miles'

 
By Jamie Greco
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 5/16/2018 7:11 AM
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  • Jo Ann Smith portrays Vera and RJ Cecott is Leo in Steel Beam Theatre's production of "4,000 Miles."

    Jo Ann Smith portrays Vera and RJ Cecott is Leo in Steel Beam Theatre's production of "4,000 Miles." Courtesy of Larry Boller

For its final production of the season, the Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles will present "4,000 Miles," a play by Amy Herzog that was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It opened off-Broadway in 2011.

The show opens Friday, May 18, and runs through June 10; tickets are $22-28 and available at www.steelbeamtheatre.com or by calling (630) 587-8521.

The story centers around Leo Joseph-Connell who, with his friend Micah, sets out on a 4,000-mile journey from Seattle to New York City. Leo arrives alone and heads out to reconnect with his feisty grandmother in Greenwich Village for emotional refuge.

"He (Leo) has been out of touch with his girlfriend, his sisters, his mother for weeks," said director Larry Boller of Elgin. "When he shows up, he speaks openly with his grandmother. There is something to be revealed."

Although the story is compelling, it's the characters that make the play stand out once Leo enters his grandmother's apartment.

"Leo is 21 years old, and he's one of those kids that has passion," said R.J. Cecott of Hickory Hills, who plays the character. "While on the journey, an accident happens that leaves Leo is a state of grief and confusion and he's not sure how to handle it."

Vera, the grandmother, is the other side of the coin.

"Vera is a Manhattan Grandma," said JoAnn Smith who plays her. "She has a very progressive mind and stays connected with friends."

Jo Ann Smith portrays Vera and RJ Cecott is Leo in Steel Beam Theatre's production of "4,000 Miles."
Jo Ann Smith portrays Vera and RJ Cecott is Leo in Steel Beam Theatre's production of "4,000 Miles." - Courtesy of Larry Boller

For Boller, casting Vera correctly was of utmost importance. He was looking for a younger actress who could play a woman quite a bit older than herself.

"The most challenging thing about putting on this play is that Vera is supposedly 91 so in casting you have to find someone who can play that age without being 91," Boller said, adding, "Many actresses, when they cross into their 80s, find it challenging to learn their lines."

Smith, of Roselle, was prepared for the role, having played older women a few times in other productions.

"You have to watch your physicality; how fast you're moving," Smith explained. "Vocally, she wavers a little, she forgets her words."

Chemistry is important when creating believable characters, according to Smith and she and Cecott found something in common that created a connection between them. Both actors attended the same college with the same major.

"We both went to ISU (Illinois State University)" Smith said. "I went decades before, but he's a theater major and so was I."

ISU is where Cecott first came across the play.

"A friend of mine had read it and told me it would be a really good play to take a look at," he said. "I graduated last May and they had auditions for Steel Beam's full season and I saw they were doing the play. I thought that it would be a really good acting challenge for me."

"It's a great slice-of-life piece," added Smith. "These two generations are together and seeing they have a little more in common than they imagined. They can share their family and relationships. There are very touching moments and some very funny moments."

Paula Smiech as Bec, at front, and JoAnn Smith as Vera rehearse a scene from "4,000 Miles," which opens Friday, May 18, at the Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles.
Paula Smiech as Bec, at front, and JoAnn Smith as Vera rehearse a scene from "4,000 Miles," which opens Friday, May 18, at the Steel Beam Theatre in St. Charles. - Courtesy of Larry Boller

Over the month they spend together, the touching moments stem mostly from another aspect of life that both Vera, who has lost her husband, and Leo, who is experiencing grief for the first time, share. Portraying that grief is the chief challenge for a Cecott, who is 21.

"I've been fortunate not to experience much personal loss, so it's one of those experiences where, as an actor you want to relate to your character and what they're going through," he said. "I can understand a personal loss, but losing someone who is so close to you is hard to grasp."

Although the subject matter sounds dark, Cecott wants to make clear that the show is not a weepy drama.

"There's a lot of humor in how they interact," he said. "You see how these two people have so much in common and they can grow together," he said.

"This is a drama with comic scenes," agreed Boller. "This is an engaging story with real characters," he said. "It's charming and touching and it ends on a high note. It's a very positive play."

Other cast members include Carolyn Plurad of Chicago and Paula Smiech of Streamwood.

• • •

"4,000 Miles"

Where: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, May 18-June 10

Tickets: $22-28; (630) 587-8521 or www.steelbeamtheatre.com

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