There are times you just have to admit you were wrong. When I saw Amy Herzog’s Obie-winning “4000 Miles” at Gloucester Stage three years ago I thought it was a good production of a mediocre play. It was the other way around, as the eye-opening production at Shakespeare & Company (through July 16) in Lenox makes clear, at least to these newly opened eyes.
Loaded with charm and insight, director Nicole Ricciardi guides her cast through the to-ing and fro-ing of generational agita, brought on by the appearance of Leo, a millennial male making a cross-country bike trip, at the doorstep of his 91-year-old Manhattan grandmother, Vera.
Where Nancy J. Carroll played the Manhattanite with a kind of doddering depressiveness in Gloucester, Annette Miller invests her with an all-embracing, life-affirming attitude. Not that she’s the happiest camper in New York. She’s constantly bickering with her neighbor across the hall and her loneliness is evident to everyone, except perhaps her.
Miller is a long-time member of this excellent company, now in the hands of another S&C veteran, Allyn Burrows. Burrows mixed the contemporary in with the Bard at Actors’ Shakespeare Project and it’s great to see him spicing up the Shakespearean mix in the Berkshires as well.
If Miller, who’s also appeared at the American Repertory Theater and other Eastern Mass. venues, has ever been better, I haven’t seen the performance. She so thoroughly inhabits Vera’s New Yawka way of talking that you’d swear you've sat beside her at a Broadway matinee. And it’s not all talk. A wag of the finger here and a bob of the head there tells Leo, the millennial bike-rider, that he’s not as smart as he thinks he is.
Leo does know, though, that he’s plenty lost. His best friend was killed on the cross-country bike trip, he’s on the outs with his girlfriend, he can’t stand his mother. And despite a certain self-confidence about his outdoorsy, anti-computer approach to the world, he’s more adrift in it than his Times-reading, Matisse-loving, politically-committed grandma.
While some of her yenta nagging can drive him crazy (she thinks his thin girlfriend is too chubby), it’s obvious that he has more to learn from her than vice versa. And any actor can learn from Miller’s performance here as she finds all the humor and all the dignity of this character who could so easily lapse into cliche. As Miller says in prepared notes, “She isn't a larger than life woman … but she is like all of those women we know who have lived very full lives.” The technology of the 21st century may have passed her by, but if she doesn’t know how to Google the the name of the "whatchamacallit" that she can’t quite remember, she still has the wisdom to figure the important things out.
A question for Shakespeare & Company, loaded with actors who can play Prospero or Prospera, is whether the troupe can find the next Annette Miller or Allyn Burrows. If Gregory Boover (Leo), Emma Geer (his girlfriend) and Zoë Laiz (a potential replacement) do Shakespeare as well as they do Herzog, the answer could be yes.
The degree of difficulty is higher for Shakespeare, of course, but as we’ve learned, not everyone can do Herzog, either. The young playwright doesn’t scale the heights that her friend Annie Baker does, but she’s cut from similar fine cloth. Their characters are adrift in ways in which we’re all adrift and finding connection in ways that most of us yearn to find.
That search for connection is one of the reasons we keep coming back to the theater. And this production of “4000 Miles” is one of the reasons we keep coming back to Shakespeare & Company.