Amy Herzog's "4000 Miles" is a small drama that's confined to one room and focused on the relationship between two characters, an elderly grandmother and her neo-hippie grandson.
Yet the play, which is receiving an attentive production at South Coast Repertory under the direction of David Emmes, travels further than a good deal of recent work of far more epic scope.
Herzog captures the way people behave when they don't think they're being closely watched. There's an offbeat candor to her writing, an unsuspecting openness. Her characters have a tendency to speak before they edit. Herzog artfully arranges these seemingly spontaneous moments into a meaningful dramatic journey.
"4000 Miles," first produced by Lincoln Center Theatre in 2011, proceeds so naturally, with each self-contained scene allowed to unfold on its own terms, that the work can seem desultory, even plotless. This is a play about individuals with strong political convictions that doesn't hit us over the head with ideology. The playwright embodies her vision in her story. Her platform (if you can call an ironically alert humanism a platform) inheres in the deepening interaction of her characters.
What a pleasure to encounter the impeccable realism of Jenny O'Hara, who plays the 91-year-old Vera Joseph, an old-fashioned Greenwich Village lefty who opens her apartment to her wayward grandson, Leo Joseph-Connell (Matt Caplan). Whether hurling a cart of laundry across the living room or erupting in frustration when the word she's looking for falls out of her head, O'Hara's Vera is so convincingly drawn that she seems to have wandered onto the stage from the theater lobby.
Inspired by Herzog's real-life grandmother, Vera is a woman who has lived too long and seen too much to hector Leo, who has been out of touch with his family. She's concerned about him, but sensing how fragile his psyche is, she doesn't want to scare him off.
Something happened back home in St. Paul that Leo doesn't want to talk about. Something even worse occurred when he was cycling from Seattle to New York: His best friend was killed in a freak accident involving a poultry truck.
Gaunt, unshowered and agitated, Leo shows up at his grandmother's door in the middle of the night after finding out that his girlfriend, Bec (Rebecca Mozo), who's now studying in New York, doesn't want to see him anymore. Exhausted and aimless, he uses Vera's apartment as a way station, but it becomes something more than that.
That "something" is the substance of Herzog's play.
"4000 Miles" engages a cross-generational conversation on progressive politics. Leo is surrounded by the books his late grandfather wrote on communism and is both impressed by their commitment and amused by their idealism. His own politics are at once more cynical and holier than thou.
Vera's memory is shaky. She can't remember the bits of Marxist wisdom her husband would routinely spout, but she knows about taking responsibility. This she tries to impart to her disdainful, go-it-alone- grandson.
"The point is you help people," she tells him, distilling the essence of her creed, "it's about the community, it's not about I do what's best for me and you do what's best for you …"
The two confide in one another, squabble, smoke some weed and enact the difficult truth of Vera's wisdom: Friends, neighbors, family, lovers — all imperfect — must find a way to get along even when they don't. An independent path doesn't mean an indifferent one.
Emmes' production is at its best in tracing the subtle twists in this relationship. (Herzog's tale moves with the psychological discretion of a Grace Paley short story.) His staging, helped enormously by the cluttered detail of Ralph Funicello's apartment set, humanizes the politics.
There are a couple of questionable choices. Bec is described as "chubby" by Vera yet is played by Mozo, who is as lithe as can be. Although Vera subsequently acknowledges that Bec has lost some weight, the casting asks us to overlook the obvious. (Surely there isn't a shortage of accomplished thickset actresses.)
The scene with Amanda (Klarissa Mesee), the young woman Leo brings home from a club to help him forget about Bec, doesn't have the comic pop that it should. Amanda's character seems strained here, and Leo, though obviously brokenhearted, is a little too lackluster.
But then perhaps I was just impatient for O'Hara to return to the stage. This is the third production I've seen of "4000 Miles," and she may just be the best Vera yet. She's definitely the most New Yorky.
More important, the honesty of her portrayal raises Caplan's game. His performance grows a bit slack without her. But they movingly accompany each other down the trail of Herzog's impressively mapped-out drama.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Cost Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Nov. 17.
Tickets: $22 to $72
Contact: (714) 708-5555; http://www.scr.org
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes