Palm Beach Dramaworks’ season has started up with a production of 4,000 Miles, a play by Amy Herzog that first premiered off-Broadway in 2011 and became a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. And though the script itself may have its fair share of both bright moments and baffling pitfalls, this production has a notable advantage of having two incredible performances at its center. One of those is that of rising star Gabriell Salgado as Leo, a lost young man who has found himself washing up at the NYC apartment of his grandmother Vera, who is played by accomplished stage veteran Patricia Connolly, the other obvious standout.
Guided by the direction of J. Barry Lewis, both succeed in granting their characters an innate likability, which is a notable feat in and of itself since the stubborn and sometimes crotchety elder and the cocky and sometimes careless millennial may stretch audience capacity for compassion.
Gradually, this basic odd-couple premise takes on more depth as the two’s unique and complex histories are revealed. Most notably, Leo is struggling to process an inexplicable tragedy that occurred during the cross-country bike ride that preceded his arrival, which was to traverse the titular distance. He is also reckoning with an estrangement from his former girlfriend Bec, his parents’ unhappy marriage, and his complex relationship with his adopted sister Lily.
Stephanie Vazquez and Gabriell Salgado photo by Alicia Donelan
Meanwhile, aspects of Vera’s past that are touched upon include a failed first marriage, being subsequently made a widow, regrets about various relationships, and a history of radical political activism.
Though most of these details were interesting, I couldn’t help but find myself wishing that each were examined in a little more depth. As it is, there’s a sense in which the work seems to skim the surface, merely implying connections between these complications without offering much insight into any of them.
Nothing in the character’s behavior creates notable contradiction, and the dialogue remains dependably amusing and believably slice of life. Yet it also seems as if the script presents plenty of interesting “what’s” while failing to reach deeper into any particular “why.” For instance, the fact that Leo apparently shared a casual kiss with his sister Lily and then chose a girl who physically resembled her to bring home in hopes of a one-night stand is incredibly fascinating; but it’s a fact that the audience is left to ponder for themselves instead of one that a character ever has to confront or unpack.
On the other hand, maybe it’s also a little unsophisticated of me to find myself wanting an obvious takeaway from everything I see transpire onstage. Instead, one could choose to simply enjoy the play’s subtlety, or to focus on the slow and quiet journey of its two main characters into greater understanding of themselves and of one another as they develop an affecting bond.
Slowly, as we see trust and warmth develop between the two, debates about money or overreactions to off-color comments give way to a certain symbiosis. Leo can lend a hand with practical tasks that Vera’s age makes difficult, and he can enjoy the physical and emotional comfort of having a place to stay and a caring guard.
For Vera, a stray grandson also becomes a balm to the loneliness that has clearly haunted her since the death of her second husband, which took place long enough ago that Leo is surprised to find his name still on her apartment’s door. In fact, as Vera’s circle of friends has dwindled as more face death, she relies on daily phone calls to an ill-tempered neighbor solely to ensure that neither of them are now pushing up daisies, a running gag that has a surprisingly touching payoff near the play’s end.
Patricia Conolly and Gabriell Salgado photo by Alicia Donelan
Other memorable highlights include a hilarious scene where Leo and Vera engage in some intergenerational pot-smoking, and the aforementioned scene in which Leo and tipsy fashion student Amanda, played effectively and humorously by Isabella Chang, engage in a mostly awkward but always believable flirtation.
Less chemistry, though, seems to be at play in the interactions between Leo and his ex Bec; though actress Stephanie Vasquez’s tense energy is what the text suggests for her character, it still seems like an odd match for Leo’s casual, insouciant swagger, making it hard to see what drew the two characters together and how they became so important to one another.
Also somewhat awkward is a Skype scene that would’ve come off as a lot less clunky if written as a simple phone call, though this is no fault of actress Nathalie Andrade, who provides an offstage voice for the moment as well as serving as understudy for both young female roles.
But, in the end, though 4,000 Miles has its faults, it also offers quite a lot to contemplate despite its many loose ends. In the face of the uncertainty and unhappiness that define so much of our lives, even connections as circumstantial and ultimately fleeting as Leo and Vera’s can sometimes be enough to get us through. So, if you don’t want to miss this play’s moving meditation on mortality and companionship, you have until this October 30th to catch this great production for yourself!