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A Jewish grandmother takes on a new role in ‘4000 Miles’

Journal Correspondent

Photo by Christopher Duggan Gregory Boover and Annette Miller in “4000 Miles.”

JULY 13, 2017 – LENOX – Amy Herzog clearly loves Jewish stage grandmother Vera Joseph. The talented playwright based the independent-minded matriarch of her 2010 “After the Revolution” and 2011 “4000 Miles” on her own beloved activist Greenwich Village grandmother,  Leepee Joseph, who passed away three years ago at the age of 96.
Vera, a significant influence on her young, idealist granddaughter Emma in “After the Revolution,” has a supporting presence in that family drama set in 1998. In the structurally tighter and stronger “4000 Miles” – a deserved Obie Award new play winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist – the outspoken grandmother remains as feisty as ever, but her mentoring takes center stage with the arrival of her hippy grandson, Leo.
Their relationship proves both wonderfully warm and intensely moving in Shakespeare & Company’s auspicious 40th anniversary season opener, fittingly staged in its intimate Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre in Lenox through July 16.
Right from the start, Vera and Leo are a vivid study in contrast. Vera may be politically radical and unashamedly leftist, but her everyday life in her old-fashioned, rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment has a kind of conventional structure complete with regular visits to the building’s laundry room and daily phone chats with a fellow (unseen) tenant. At the same time, the proud 91-year-old urges her grandson to get to know the city’s museums.  Kudos to designer John McDermott’s set, which includes Picasso and Matisse prints and a Cuban film poster.
Leo, 21, rings Vera’s doorbell in the middle of the night. He is still grieving the death of his best friend, Micah, in a terrible accident during their cross-country motorcycle trip to New York and trying to deal with the precarious state of his relationship with girlfriend, Bec. Leo’s conflicted back story includes family disapproval about his decision to complete the trip despite Micah’s death, delay of college, and uncertainty about work and career.
As an intended short September stay turns into weeks, equally individualistic Vera and Leo find considerable common ground about the importance of caring and family. Vera provides Leo with a role model of grounded living, while he takes on an attractive, protective feel for his somewhat fragile but resolute and indomitable grandmother. Director Nicole Ricciardi painstakingly paces their journey to clarity.
A strong cast is led by Annette Miller, who speaks with a very convincing New York accent and moves with a well-modulated shuffle. She has all of Vera’s vivacity – especially in frank and humorous descriptions of her very different husbands – as well as her undaunted spirit.
Gregory Boover, properly lean and lanky as Leo, moves from a broadly confident demeanor early on to a more measured body language as he gains insight about himself and life. Miller and Boover demonstrate solid chemistry and fine reactive acting during Vera and Leo’s evolving time together.  Boover’s delivery of Leo’s telling monologue, in which he confronts the loss of Micah, is fully gripping and emotionally stunning.
Emma Geer captures Bec’s emotional issues as well as the enigmatic aspects of her own personality. Zoe Laiz gives a breakout performance as Amanda, an intoxicated but insightful woman who Leo brings to Vera’s apartment. She brings arresting appeal to her initial light-heartedness and blistering indignation to revealing details about her family’s flight from Communist China.
Near the end of “4000 Miles,” Vera assures, “I’m always all right.” The same goes for Herzog’s sharp intergenerational vehicle and Shakespeare & Company’s luxurious ride.
“4000 Miles,” Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox (Berkshires), through July 16. 413-637-1199 or Shakespeare.org.

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