Nathan Barrett and Nicola Cavendish in Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles. (photo by David Cooper)
I can be quite nervous going to see a play that relies on only one or two main actors to carry the production, particularly when those one or two have most of the dialogue, and the action takes place in only one room for the entire performance.
But my concern is never that great when Nicola Cavendish is one of the two involved because I know I will laugh out loud, stifle tears and otherwise experience a full, rich range of emotions. I was not disappointed when I caught Cavendish in Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles.
In this starring role, Cavendish plays 91-year-old Vera whose grandson Leo (Nathan Barrett) comes to stay with her after a cross-continent bike trip during which his best friend died.
Leo has come to stay with his grandmother due to lack of cash, being estranged from his mother and in an uncertain position with his girlfriend.
At first Leo appears to be the clichéd lost soul – not entirely the self-absorbed persona you expect to find in a 21-year-old – who brings to Vera a companionship the older woman is missing. The reunion is filled with laughs right off the top as Vera’s hearing problems cause havoc in the communication.
Vera herself is savvy, but tough, and pulls no punches when giving her opinion.
“You smell terrible and I wouldn’t be surprised if you have lice,” she says to Leo in one of the first lines of the play.
The relationship starts with Leo showing warmth to an uncomfortable Vera, who’s more used to complaining all the time than accepting someone’s love; and it’s quickly revealed that
Vera really only wants what’s best for her grandson, like a good night’s sleep.
Vera shows interest in Leo’s recent trip as well, albeit on the weird side, asking Leo if he ever met a sexual crackpot wanting favors in exchange for giving Leo a place to stay.
The two soon start talking about family, and Vera admits she also has a dysfunctional relationship with Leo’s mother: “I always end up telling her what a disappointment she was to her father,” Vera sighs. “I don’t mean to, but I do.”
It’s not long before Leo’s “one-day visit” turns into a lengthy stay and the well-meaning free spirit starts acting like a freeloader, even bringing one-night stands over to the apartment.
Vera, for her part, turns into a crotchety micro-manager who’s defensive and fearful. She starts to lecture Leo on responsibility, and doesn’t hesitate to show an angry frustrated side when she feels her space is being infringed upon.
In one brilliantly funny scene, Leo’s girlfriend comes over and drops her bag in the middle of the living room. Walking by the bag, Vera nonchalantly gives it a kick and, with surprising results, sends it flying a good 10 feet back to the front door – eliciting laughs and applause from the audience.
Vera’s progressive loss of memory, while a bane for her (“I hate not being able to find the right words”), is also a source for comedic enjoyment in the play, especially when she and Leo smoke pot together.
“Your father never did anything for me in bed,” she says, mistakenly referencing her daughter. “Neither of my husbands did.”
“Were my parents in love?”
Leo asks during this baring of stoned souls.
“Which ones were your parents?” Vera dopily responds.
While this play is not likely to offer deep insights that will turn your world around and cause you to run out to reconcile with every estranged member of your family, it is a warm, wonderfully written snapshot of two somewhat lost people who come together with love and humor.
4000 Miles ran Off-Broadway in 2011 and again in 2012, and was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It shows at the Arts Club Stanley Theatre until Oct. 12. Visit artsclub.com.
Baila Lazarus is a Vancouver-based writer, painter and photographer. Her work can be seen at orchiddesigns.net.