'4000 Miles' review or 'I hear you loud and clear.'
'4000 Miles', Amy Herzog
Print Room Theatre, Thursday 16th May 2013
Sara Kestelman turns in a performance of swirling depth as the gentle but gruff New Yawk grandma, Vera, in Amy Herzog's heartfelt play, '4000 Miles'. Vera's lonely life is stopped in its tracks – frozen and then thawed – by the surprising arrival of her grandson Leo (Daniel Boyd). Once a hippy with nothing to lose, Leo has now lost someone dear to him and has turned up at his grandma's doorstep looking for a place to hide and heal.
The two develop a warm dynamic together, carefully creating a soft space into which Leo's sadness and Vera's loneliness can quietly fall. The relationship between a grandmother and her grandson is dramatic gold dust: it possesses both an instinctive closeness and necessary distance which lends any shared interaction an easy and authentic variety. A grandmother can simultaneously spoil and scold her grandson in a way a parent cannot. A grandson can offer comfort and then unthinkingly withdraw that warmth in a way that a son cannot.
Amy Herzog mines this relationship with great skill and grace. She teases the two apart as she brings them closer together. In many ways, they could not be more contrasting; Leo's sad apathy pools quietly beneath Vera's bustling energy. Vera is a woman determined to live and Kestelman animates her performance with endless physical tics, as if all those grunts, groans and giggles might frighten death away. Leo, who has come close to death for the first time, sits in quiet opposition to his grandma's determined activity. He seems paralysed by his new knowledge, bamboozled by how cruel life can be.
As the two circle around each other, occasionally stumbling across each other's hidden fears, we sink easily into their company. Helped by Dacre's sensitive and nimble direction, we quickly develop an instinctive connection with these characters, anticipating their reactions and forgiving their failings.
Themes quietly build and the lightly worn scenes begin to speak of much bigger concerns. The idea of faulty communication – be that via Vera's hearing aid, a dodgy Skype connection or a next door neighbour Vera calls but does not see – resonates loudly. This idea is also expressed through Vera's forgetfulness, as she reaches for words and phrases just out of her grasp. There is something particularly powerful about watching dementia set in on-stage - a cruel irony to the idea of an older actress remembering to forget her lines.
The characters off-stage are equally rich – a significant feature of Herzog's writing, which really sets her apart. Herzog deftly sketches in these absent characters. Leo's absent family and friends and Vera's lovers – all dead now - glow with life, thanks to a few snatched scenes or stolen phrases.
The characters grow brighter still as the play progresses. In the final scene, Leo rehearses a hastily researched speech about the lady next door. With just a quick google search, Leo brings to life this absent lady. Forced into the wings for the final act of her life, she is brought centre stage one last time. We're reminded how quickly long lives are forgotten – and how little it takes to allow everyone their moment in the spotlight. Bravo.