Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s 87 seats were filled, per usual, with eager supporters who had braved a windstorm and the craziness of a full moon to be present for the opening night of 4000 Miles. Since this is the final presentation of CV Rep’s 2015-16 season—which had the theme of “identity: lost and found” and has certainly been the company’s best ever—we were all filled with anticipation.
The play by Amy Herzog debuted in 2011, and CV Rep’s founding artistic director, Ron Celona, informed us that it won an Obie Award in 2012 and was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It deals with the attempts that of all of us make to try to bridge the generational gap—and considering some of today’s music, perhaps a larger generational gap has never existed. Speaking of music, classic Dave Brubeck sounds separate the scenes of this play. What a treat for the ears—that alto sax never fails to amaze.
The in-between-scene music is just one of the excellent details put in place by Celona, who assembled a tightly knit group to tackle all the technical aspects of the show. Jimmy Cuomo’s set, on this open stage, greets us with an eclectic, slightly run-down and old-fashioned Manhattan apartment. Aalsa Lee’s up-to-date costuming is exactly right. The sound, created by Randy Hansen, and the lighting, designed by Moira Wilke Whitaker, are flawless, and the fabulous Linda Shaeps has designed the excellent makeup and hair styles. Props were created by Doug Morris, and the techs are Karen Goodwin for sound, and Louise Ross for lighting (and stage managing). How can anything go wrong with a team like this?
The play opens at 3 a.m. at that pitch-dark Big Apple apartment, where Leo and his cross-country bike have arrived to crash at Grandma Vera’s. Awakened, she fumbles her way to the door without teeth (Was that acting? Was it REAL?) to admit her reed-thin grandson “for the night.” You guessed it: Three weeks later, he’s still there.
Grandma Vera Joseph is played by Ivy Jones, who is convincing as an octogenarian who gropes for forgotten names and words, misplaces her hearing aid and frailly flits from the present tense to her sizable past. Leo Joseph-Connell is acted by Zachary Hallett, completely believable as he juggles his growing pains with the recent horror of losing his best friend and dealing with the confusing women in his life. These two dominate the play, and we watch Leo and Vera as they struggle to understand each other. They battle memories versus reality, truth versus lies, perception versus knowledge.
Two actresses make cameo appearances. Leo’s future ex-girlfriend Rebecca (“Bec”) is played by redheaded Megan Rippey; she’s filled with conflicts and doubts, torn in all directions at once … yet she invokes our sympathy. One night, Leo meets and brings home Amanda, a raven-haired tart played by Christine de Chavez, who very nearly steals the show. She’s a splash of color, a wind-chime of laughter and a whirl of excitement in an otherwise angst-filled journey.
Leo’s complicated family life crisscrosses through the dialogue, and we are slowly fed the details of the relationships, leaving us a bit stunned. Adoptions and divorces are mixed in, furthering the complexities. Politics dangle from some branches of the family tree. Feelings abound. Therapy is involved. Ooof!
The play is about co-existing with our families and the rest of the world. It’s about communication that spans the years and which can separate people. It’s about finding common ground between people instead of differences. There’s some gossip. There’s loneliness. There are huge contradictions within people—for example, Grandma Vera still uses a rotary-dial telephone, but she also owns a computer.
Though Leo lives in St. Paul, Minn., he has made the journey by bike from the West Coast to New York—hence the play’s title. Yes, it was dangerous. In one brilliant and breathtaking monologue, he tells us about his trip. You might never forget what he said. I will certainly never forget learning that people making such a trip are supposed to dip the rear wheel of their bicycle in the Pacific upon departure, and when they arrive at the Atlantic coastline, they are to dip the front wheel in the waters. How lovely!
The writing is extraordinary. Each character’s speech patterns and verbal expressions are completely unique. Herzog has truly “found the voice” of each character—and she has been willing to step aside and let THEM speak.
As the director, Celona has identified the big picture in this production, and the big picture is … small. It’s all about attention to detail, which is rich. (They use a real refrigerator!) Also, the actors speak in normal voices, not using projection. This can only be accomplished in an intimate theater like this one. It gives the show a realistic quality, as if we are sharing a nanny-cam moment of watching them. This show is a superb example of the method style of acting: Each actor presents us with a studied performance, in which every tiny gesture and breath and reaction has been thought out. It seems so natural and spontaneous that it looks like it is just happening. Nothing is harder than making something look effortless.
Congratulations to CV Rep on this astonishing season, and bravo to the cast of 4000 Miles. We already can’t wait for the next play.
4000 Miles is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 8, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48, and the play runs 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.