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I love sentimental theater— you know, the kind that’s warm and hopeful and whose uplifting resolve makes you feel that the protagonists will never again feel the bitter, empty pit of loneliness. Even though I know such endings don’t hold one shred of authenticity, sometimes they can serve as positive diversion.
Amy Herzog’s brilliant 4,000 Miles is not such a play. It’s authentic and moving, without a shred of sentimentality.
Herzog bases her character, Vera, on her strong-talking, tough Communist grandmother who died this spring at the age of 95. Vera was the family matriarch, and Herzog lived with her when she first graduated from college. In her words:
"I'm very grateful for that period (with my 'roommate'), mostly because we got in some fights, which I now think is completely remarkable. I worked through fights with my grandmother. Very few people can say that."
In the play’s first moments we meet Vera (Beth Dixon) and Leo, her grandson (David Raphaely), each lost in a journey of aloneness, but determined to somehow survive without complaint. In the next hour and 45 minutes, here are the life lessons they bring us— the sort of truths so rarely found in theatrical experiences:
1. Grandparents and grandchildren have a natural bond and can help each other in extraordinary ways, as life chapters evolve. Grandparenting has been called “emotional money in the bank” for their grandchildren. However, 4,000 Miles also shows that the emotional payoff works both ways. As the psychologist Alice Ginott and the comedian Sam Levinson have both observed, “Grandparents and grandchildren get along well because they have a common enemy.”
2. Growing up is an exceeding complicated process, and most women cannot be happy married to a boy rather than a man. The same goes for men. That said, no one can force another to mature. Being heard, respected, spoken to clearly and trusted helps provide the confidence to face the inevitable hurdles of love and work in an adult world.
Limits of sexuality
3. Failure to find sexual and emotional fulfillment in marriage isn’t uncommon. Intellectual companionship, though it can be lonely when not balanced with the former, has its strengths. Sexual fulfillment tends to be short-lived when two people can’t talk together.
4. One doesn’t have to birth children, nor have genetic ties to grandchildren, to love them fiercely and devotedly.
5. Male and female siblings usually form deep bonds of emotional involvement, even if they’re not realized and expressed. On an unconscious level, these bonds hold a sexual component. To move on toward a mature love in adult years requires some sort of letting go. A parallel kind of understanding, separation and respect is necessary between parents and their children. And as 4,000 Miles demonstrates, grandparents can become an extraordinary bridge in this essential process.
Tending your garden
6. A main challenge in life is to cultivate the garden bequeathed to us— knowing what to keep and what to discard, and then adding our life experience to it.
7. You don’t have to be overtly affectionate to love deeply.
8. Myriad types of “green thumbs” furnish growth and survival to the living family garden, however complex and messy it may seem.
9. The external forces in our lives— like politics, culture, and technology— may change from year to year, but our internal need for closeness, understanding, companionship and intimacy remains the same.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.
What, When, Where
4,000 Miles. By Amy Herzog; Mary B. Robinson directed. Philadelphia Theatre Company production through November 10, 2013, at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard). (215) 985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
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