Friday, February 12, 2016

4000 Miles by Amy Herzog






4000 Miles by Amy Herzog.  Presented by Critical Stages, Catnip Productions and Mophead Productions, produced by Cat Dibley, at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Ventre, February 11-13, 2016.

Director – Anthony Skuse; Set and Costume Designer – Hugh O’Connor; Associate Lighting Designer – Alexander Berlage; Associate Sound Designer – Alistair Wallace.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 11
 
Cast
Diana McLean – Vera Joseph
Stephen Multari – Leo-Joseph-Connell
Aileen Huynh – Amanda and Lily (?)
Eloise Snape – Bec (?)

Americans describe this Pulitzer Prize nominated play as a heart-warming comedy-drama.  It’s a bit ironic that for me, not yet quite as old as 91-year-old Vera but with some of the same memory recall problems, this presentation became a bit of a mystery.

But first, the important thing to say is that the performances, the set design and costuming, the choice of recordings between scenes, and the lighting were all very effectively done.  First night in a new venue on tour can have its problems, but not in The Q’s theatre (which, after the recent showing of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, always feels “just right”).

Diana McLean presents Vera Joseph, Leo’s grandmother with the right tendency to talk too much, after ten years living alone in her New York apartment since her husband, Joe, died.  21-year-old Leo, who has unexpectedly arrived at 3am, with his bike (and in the proper lycra riding costume) has dipped his rear wheel in the Pacific in Seattle, but has stopped in briefly (and unsatisfactorily) at his girlfriend Bec’s apartment, and not yet dipped his front wheel into the Atlantic to complete the ritual.

Stephen Multari’s lean, muscular build makes him the perfect bike rider, but Leo clearly has problems relating emotionally.  Gradually Vera’s role as grandmother – as Leo breaks up with Bec, tries out with drunken pick-up Amanda and finally skypes his adopted sister Lily to apologise for his past behaviour – helps him to pull the strands of his life together into the beginnings of a sense of direction.  He goes for an interview as a mountain guide, and at the end of the play is about to leave for work in Colorado.

The set design, with Vera’s old-fashioned but comfortable furniture and decorations centre-stage, is simple.  But, as if it were perhaps a serviced apartment, appropriate for a 91-year-old, the two young women fetch and carry props as needed to and from Vera and Leo, except for the scenes in which they appear as Bec, Amanda or Lily.  The effect is that the whole cast is kept together on stage, rather than splitting into two central actors and two minor players.  The feeling, as a result, is much warmer and integrated, linked together as well by well-chosen popular music and songs as illustrations of the mood on stage as the short scenes change over the three or four week period covered by the play.

Anthony Skuse’s Director’s Note would like to make this play rather more significant than it deserves, by writing: “As in the plays of Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner [Angels in America], Herzog’s family drama can be understood within a wider historical context.” 

The Miller play (which I once directed) that might seem close to 4000 Miles in form is All My Sons, but Miller focussed the quite static action in Joe Keller’s backyard to make the family and neighbourly interactions all lead to the revelation of the bigger issue of corruption in a world of capitalist profit-taking (which resulted in Joe Keller causing the death of his own son – representing all our sons killed in war).

In Herzog’s play, the issue of left and right politics is revealed only through Vera’s peripheral talk about the the family’s Marxist past, Leo’s discovering her husband’s published book on the subject and, from an American perspective, the underlying implication that it was not surprising that a Jewish family would have been Marxist.  The young women in these later times assume that means they were Communist.

The big difference between Miller and Herzog is that in his play the big issue drives the family tragedy; in hers the tragedy for Leo is the accidental death of his riding mate, Micah, riding ahead of Leo, when a passing truck trailer breaks away and rolls on top of him.  There is drama in Leo’s telling of the story of this event to his grandmother – and Multari does the speech proud as an actor – but in the end the play remains more warm-hearted comedy and much less drama (certainly not tragedy) than anything written by Miller.

What is especially pleasing about the presentation of 4000 Miles (presumably the ocean to ocean distance from Seattle to New York) is the cooperative venture between the now well-established and reputable touring company, Critical Stages, and the newly developed initiatives by quite recently graduated actors – Mutari and Snape’s Mophead Productions – and the move from acting into producing by Cat Dibley in Catnip Productions.  Aileen Huynh graduated from WAAPA in 2010, Hugh O’Connor from NIDA in 2013 and Alistair Wallace from The Actors Centre in 2010.  This is a good sign for the future of Australian Theatre – something to do with innovation and being agile.

However, despite the quality of the production, at this point my up-front question marks raise their heads and shake a little.  With my septuagenarian memory in tow, I looked at the program for the names of the characters and cast.  The cast are listed – but not the characters, nor who played them.  I apologise if I have not guessed correctly.

I think for this play, too, because the complexities of Leo Joseph-Connell’s family connections only become apparent in bits and pieces of talk, mainly by Vera, I was not sure of remembering how the bits fitted together, nor the names of characters – like Leo’s mother Jane and his riding-mate Micah, nor of Micah’s girlfriend mentioned by Bec – who didn’t appear on stage.

Fortunately I found a very useful link to the American Conservatory Theater:
http://www.act-sf.org/content/dam/act/education_department/words_on_plays/4000%20Miles%20Words%20on%20Plays%20%282013%29.pdf

The American Conservatory Theatre document also includes a handy synopsis (though I still don’t know Micah’s girlfriend’s name – was it Ali?)

But not to worry – the play is worth watching and the performance very good.



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