GLOUCESTER — Nancy E. Carroll is known in Boston theater for owning every role she takes on. The three-time Elliot Norton Award-winner does it again as Vera, the cranky Greenwich Village nonagenarian in Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” at Gloucester Stage Company.
Wincing as she levers herself up out of a chair with her cane, scowling at her inability to remember words, and flashing a cagey humor, Carroll is all that in a role with more technical challenges than most. The character, based on Herzog’s own grandmother, appeared in several scenes in Herzog’s 2010 play “After the Revolution,” after which she wrote “4000 Miles” to give Vera her due. Carroll makes the most of the role.
She is more or less well-matched with Tom Rash as Leo, Vera’s 21-year-old grandson, who turns up at her door in the middle of the night at the end of a cross-country bicycle ride marked by tragedy. The rest of their family is looking for Leo, but he hides out in Vera’s apartment while he grapples with how to move on.
Their touchy but loving relationship is the best thing about “4000 Miles,” which seems rather slight to have won the 2012 Obie Award for best new play and been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama that same year.
Leo is a bearded, earnest, self-described “hippie” in brightly colored biking togs, smart and kind but also callow and self-centered — a puppy, in short. The death of his best friend during their bike trip has devastated him more than he wants to admit. He’s also unsure of the status of his relationship with girlfriend Bec (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), who not coincidentally lives in Manhattan too.
The widowed Vera tries in her own way to help him work it all out, balancing her intolerance for navel-gazing nonsense with a deep gratitude at having someone to talk to, argue with, hug.
But across two acts, not much else happens. Leo borrows money from Vera and goes to the climbing gym. Vera squabbles with her never-seen neighbor across the hall. Bec visits, unhappily. And Leo brings home a potential one-night stand, a yakking Kardashian wannabe named Amanda (Samantha Ma). Leo tells Vera what happened on the bike trip, and another death touches their lives. And that’s pretty much it.
The leftist politics of Vera and her late husband are brought up now and then. “It must have been cool to be so uncynical,” says Leo. But this subject isn’t really developed, either.
Yes, Vera and Leo make
an impression on each other,
as each eyes their own mortality from closer than ever before. But there’s not much dramatic movement here. It’s a strange play that depends for its power on the deaths of not one but two characters that we
Carroll gets a lot of laughs, sometimes with just an exasperated look. But the script hands her more than a few sitcom-y lines, including one that comes awkwardly at the end of Leo’s big speech about his friend’s death. The audience on Sunday afternoon laughed, but it undercut the moment’s power.
Gloucester artistic director Eric C. Engel’s production gives us Vera’s apartment at all hours of day and night, which is generally effective. But Leo’s big speech took place in murk so thick that the actors’ expressions were at times hard to discern. Carroll’s performance, however, remained a bright light in this production.
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com