Friday, February 5, 2016

4,000 Miles

Playwright:  Amy Herzog

Company:  Miner’s Alley Playhouse

Running Time:  1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission) 

Date of Performance:  Sunday, January 31, 2016.

Growing up and growing old are both very challenging life events.  There’s no road map, no owner’s manual to tell us how to be age gracefully.  We just have to figure it out for ourselves as we go through it.

Alaina Beth Reel (Bec) and Curtiss Johns (Leo).
Amy Herzog’s 4,000 Miles perfectly captures those moments as her characters go through some painful experiences.  Leo (Curtiss Johns) is a drifting 20 something millennial on a cross country bicycle trip (thus the 4,000 miles of the title).  He lost his best friend on the trip.  His girlfriend has given up on him.  He has lost touch with his family.  He’s looking for a job.  He’s growing up, but, frankly, it’s not going very well.

Vera (Deborah Persoff) is Leo’s grandmother, and she’s alone and lonely when Leo shows up unexpectedly at her NYC apartment.  Her friends are mostly gone, and her only regular contact is by telephone with an elderly woman in the next apartment.  Vera’s a product of the 1960s, unapologetically liberal, in fair but failing health.  Her poor hearing is annoying; her gait is slow and painful.  Still, she’s mentally as alert as she was at half her age of 90 or so.  
Deborah Persoff (Vera).

Leo and Vera coexist temporarily when Leo extends his stay; both tolerate each other respectfully.  It is in this zone of not quite comfort but not quite conflict that Herzog’s characters capture something real, something honest, about all of us.  They listen to each other, and to some extent they teach each other about life.  When Vera wants to know the status of Leo’s “chubby” girlfriend (Bec, played by Alaina Beth Reel), he bristles.  One senses that he bristles partly because he doesn’t see her as chubby (he’s right; she’s not), but mostly because Vera is prying into his private, painful relationship.  

Relaxing and bonding.  Deborah Persoff, Curtiss Johns.
That he comes around to accept Vera’s curiosity about Bec is apparent when the two of them light up a joint and relax.  Leo goes into intimate detail about a part of Bec’s anatomy.  It’s a short conversation; Vera doesn’t want to discuss it.  Still, it’s indisputable that Leo has come to see his grandmother as a confidante, not an intruder.

It’s the cross generation collaboration between Leo and Vera that Herzog writes so effectively and so honestly.  It’s drama without being dramatic; it’s comedy without jokes.  It’s a conversation between two people at different points in their lives but both going through the anxiety of aging.  

Herzog’s script in the hands of Director Len Matheo and the heads of Curtiss Johns and Deborah Persoff is a recipe for a delicious evening of theater.  Matheo has perfectly paced the show, keeping the conversations flowing but natural.  It’s a very talented cast, and Matheo requires them to play people of roles.  Shannon McKinney’s lighting design is subtle and effective, using just enough illumination during night scenes to keep the characters visible.  Jonathan Scott-McKean’s set design evokes the both the location (NYC) and the mood (Che Guevera poster on the wall) that defines Vera.

Deborah Persoff has a resume that is both wide and deep; she is unquestionably one of the finest actors working in Colorado.  Persoff hits all the marks as Vera.  She is, simultaneously, vulnerable, sassy, intelligent, sensitive, cranky, adorable and annoying.  She’s a dead ringer for every grandmother I’ve ever known.  The best part, though, is how Persoff always shows us Vera’s best qualities:  age and wisdom.  No matter the situation, Persoff shines as the adult in the room…even when she’s struggling with her own anxiety. 

Curtiss Johns doesn’t tell us that he’s struggling to find himself; he shows us.  Nonverbally.  We get it.  He doesn’t know how to handle Vera.  He doesn’t know how to handle Bec.  And he truly does not know how to handle Amanda (a flirty, teasing performance from Jenna Moll Reyes).  For that matter, few us would know how to handle her.  Johns struggles, but never complains; Leo shoulders his burdens silently, until he finally comes clean to Vera about his friend’s death.  

That dramatic scene is unforgettable.  Johns goes into the long story about how he lost his best friend on the bicycle trip.  It’s riveting.  It’s moving.  It’s exquisite.  It’s one of those rare combinations that we love to see:  the best writing of a gifted playwright, spoken in a heartfelt performance by a gifted actor.  Herzog’s words paint a vivid picture of the final minutes of friend, and when Johns delivers those lines, we all feel like we have lost that friend.

It would give away too much if I retell the ending; for that, you will have to get a ticket.  I will only say that the story ends with the same truth, honesty, and integrity that Herzog baked into the entire script.  4,000 Miles is alternately funny, dramatic, and endearing.  The Miner’s Alley Playhouse production is professional, poignant, and incredibly engaging.  If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket, 4,000 Miles at Miner’s Alley will stick you for a long time.


Linda Rae L. Wheeler.
In doing a quick Google search for some bio info on Deborah Persoff, I stumbled on this brief video from 1994 at the Theatre on Broadway.  It’s from Six Degrees of Separation, with Persoff playing opposite Paul Page.  It struck me immediately, partly for the two giants of Denver stages who are still working today, and partly because my late wife Linda was volunteering backstage for that production of Six Degrees of Separation.  Thanks for the memories, Deborah and Paul, and thanks for your many years of distinguished performances for Colorado audiences.  

This is the second time I’ve seen Curtiss Johns perform; the first time was at Miner’s Alley Playhouse in My Name is Asher Lev.  I’m certain I’ll be seeing a lot more of Mr. Johns down the road.  He’s rising.  Quickly.

4,000 Miles is suitable for teens and up.  Older teens will unquestionably relate well to Leo, and perhaps learn from his experience.


This show closes on March 6, 2016.

Pre/Post Show Dining Suggestion:

We have been meaning to try Woody’s Wood Fired Pizza and Watering Hole, just a few minutes walk from the theater.  Unfortunately, every time we’ve tried, it’s been too busy to get a table.  We scored one on a snowy Sunday afternoon this time.  It worked out great.

Woody’s features beer, burgers, and pizza, but especially pizza.  The have a buffet daily, with a salad bar and all you can eat pizza.  We had skipped lunch, so we both ordered the buffet.  It was a great choice, except for that part about overeating.  

Service was quick and friendly, and because it was a buffet, we didn’t have to worry about being late for the show.  

Recommended for either before or after the show.


Director:  Len Matheo

Set Design:  Jonathan Scott-McKean

Lighting Designer:  Shannon McKinney

Sound Design:  Len Matheo, Jonathan Scott-McKean

Costume Design:  Ann Piano

Scenic Carpentry:  Jonathan Scott McKean, Zoe Kennedy

Scenic Painting:  Liz Scott-McKean

Stage Manager:  Bryanna Scott

Assistant Stage Manager:  Zoe Kennedy


Leo:  Curtiss Johns

Vera:  Deborah Persoff

Bec:  Alaina Beth Reel

Amanda/Lily:  Jenna Moll Reyes

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