The last thing 91-year-old Vera Joseph expects to find in her Greenwich Village apartment at 3 in the morning is her grandson standing at the doorway with his knapsack-laden bicycle, fresh from pedaling across the country.
Vera gets a few more surprises in Amy Herzog’s play "4000 Miles," introduced to Baltimore audiences in a sterling production from Center Stage. But you know early on that nothing much could ever really unnerve Vera, certainly not a 21-year-old consumed by a mess of issues and what-ifs.
The way the generational and temperamental opposites deal with each other over the course of several unplanned weeks makes for slyly powerful theater. Herzog doesn't try to impart the secret of life, doesn't make any grand, spotlighted statements. You never feel the writer straining for profound effect, but she achieves it anyway.
"After the Revolution," the other work in Center Stage's Amy Herzog Festival, raises weighty political and moral questions as it examines a proudly leftist family's past and present — a family inspired by the playwright's own. The character of Vera, widow of the unrepentant Marxist Joe Joseph, who held firm during the McCarthy Era (for better or worse), makes brief, telling appearances in that 2010 play.
She's front and center in "4000 Miles" and the only figure common to both; there are just a few passing references to the people and events of the earlier work. If you catch "After the Revolution" first (I'd recommend that sequence), you feel all the more connected to Vera and her world.
It helps, too, that this alternately sensitive and sarcastic grandmother is portrayed in both works by the same exceptional actress, Lois Markle. She takes full advantage of the opportunities in "4000 Miles," which is set around 2009, a decade after the death of Vera's husband.
Not much has changed in her life. As her grandson, Leo (Josh Tobin), points out, she has never bothered to change the name next to the buzzer at the entrance on the apartment building. She still uses a wall phone — with a rotary dial. She owns a computer (a gift from her sons), but hasn't tried it.
Markle brings terrific skills and instincts to the role of this speak-first-ask-questions-later woman who may have problems with memory — a "whaddayacallit?" or two punctuates many a sentence — but not with self-confidence; who makes snap judgments and says "stupid" a lot; who isn't about to become diplomatic at her age.
Capturing the deadpan style of an independent New Yorker, Markle makes the humor in the dialogue all the funnier, especially when it helps cut the tension — a crucial scene of Leo telling of the dark turn that happened during his cross-country bike trip with his best buddy ends with a terribly perfect line from Vera.
Markle is also wonderful at letting you see the heart beneath the tough skin, even during Vera's exasperated phone conversations with an elderly neighbor (they call each other regularly so that "if one of us turns up our toes, it won‘t take until we start smelling to figure it out").
Tobin gives a dynamic, finely nuanced performance as nerdy-scruffy-cool Leo, reaching quite an expressive peak during that bike trip reminiscence. And the actor conveys just how Leo's hang-ups about his mother and adopted sister are eating at him, how the uncertainty about his place in the world weighs on him even when he pretends he's carefree.
For all of the significant gaps between them, as much in age as in priorities (Leo's more an ecological leftist than a political one), the two end up finding a kind-of common ground. Early on, Leo startles Vera with an embrace, something she clearly has been missing in her life. Markle and Tobin make you feel just how meaningful that spontaneous gesture becomes to both of them.
Vivid supporting contributions come from Lauren LaRocca as Bec, Leo's more or less ex-girlfriend; and the very amusing, note-perfect Jennifer Tsay as Amanda, the Chinese Valley-girl-with-extra-snap who almost becomes Leo’s one-night stand in one of the play's most imaginative vignettes.
As she does in "After the Revolution," director Lila Neugebauer keeps the momentum strong, but allows for plenty of room to let key revelations and conversational turns sink in all the way.
The rest of the production team remains the same, too. Daniel Zimmerman again conjures up a spot-on set design, superbly lit by Eric Southern, who knows how to make even the absence of light illuminating.
Throughout, Herzog's dialogue is sharp and natural (well, maybe not when Bec says "I'm just irretrievably sad right now"), with every pause or uncompleted sentence sounding apt. And she makes you appreciate the chance to get to know these people.
"4000 Miles" is an absorbing, fairly brief journey (it's in one, roughly 100-minute act) that touches on youth and aging, ideals and deflating realities, relatives and partners. Mostly, it's about the choices we make, or wish we'd made, and how each one ends up teaching us something, if we're paying attention.
Herzog isn't so much staking out new ground here as giving the old a fresh spin, through the voices and narratives of characters who are at one unusual and ordinary. In Vera, especially, the playwright has fashioned a memorable figure of pride, suspicion, impatience, often wicked wit and — whaddayacallit? — wisdom.