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Review: '4000 Miles' at the Phoenix Theatre

May 10, 2013
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Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” being given a luminously low-key production at the Phoenix Theatre (through June 9), does what seems to be a simple thing but is actually a rarity in contemporary theater.

It lets its characters be.

Not-so-fresh from a bike ride across the country, Leo (Purdue theater student Andrew Martin—think Scooby-Doo’s Shaggy without a dog, friends, or supernatural mysteries to solve) arrives at the apartment of his grandmother in New York. He’s primarily riding away from things—the death of his best friend, an awkward encounter with his adopted sister, responsibility in general—rather than toward anything. His ex-girlfriend visits. So does a potential new conquest (a breath of smartly drawn fresh air from actress Arianne Villareal).

But the play focuses on Leo and his grandmother, Vera (Martha Jacobs, earning rather than demanding respect, laughs, and tears). She’s an octogenarian more angry than sad about the moments when her “head isn’t really right.” She takes him in, listens (when her hearing aid is turned on) and, well, don’t look for tons of plot twists and shocking revelations. Herzog has subtler things in mind.

Neither her leads nor her supporting characters are generic types. They are specific people. Every quirk doesn’t have a late-in-the-show payoff. Their issues aren’t resolved with hugs (although there are some beautiful, complex hugging moments). They are living through their specific, sometimes messy, lives and Herzog respects that, which is enormously refreshing.

The only place the narrative stumbled for me was in a revelatory monologue that’s overwritten and unnecessarily absurd. Thankfully, the scene is smartly directed and beautifully acted, ending in the magical transformation of what could be a bring-down-the-house punchline into a sweet, truthful, and far more satisfying moment.  

I usually avoid seeing a show in its first public performance, but on May 9, “4000 Miles” showed no signs of just ramping up. Transitions could and should be tightened to avoid energy drain and the wise and right final scene felt a tad rushed. But those are minor issues and may well be worked out by the time you take your journey to the Phoenix to see what may well be the most fully realized production of the Indy theater season.

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