By MARK BLANKENSHIP
4000 Miles is such a quiet play that you could almost miss the explosions.
Amy Herzog's drama, now in previews in a Lincoln Center Theater production at the Duke on 42nd Street, is tucked inside a Manhattan apartment, where a young man, Leo, comes to stay with his grandmother Vera at the end of a cross-country bike trip.
But he doesn't just ring the bell on a Saturday afternoon. He shows up in the middle of the night, clearly avoiding something, and over several days, he reveals what's thrown him off course. Meanwhile, Vera, a feisty widow with a Communist past, is facing how age affects her body and memory.
The characters, including two other people from Leo's life, never throw dishes or make sobbing confessions, but by the final scene, they've changed each other forever. For audiences, the full impact of the change may not be obvious until after the show is over, when there's time to reflect on the tiny earthquakes inside the jokes, anecdotes, and lonely silences.
That's no accident. "I think I have a fear of addressing subjects that big, like death and grief, in a way that's completely direct," says Herzog. "It's easier for me to feel things when I'm not being asked to so directly. I'm less interested in the bigger gestures that do all of the work themselves."
Instinct guided her to create those "sideways" emotional moments. "There's a big monologue that has a lot that's finally spoken, and I guess what I felt as I was writing was that that was coming," she says. "That left me a lot of room not to go there. I didn't know exactly what [that revelatory monologue] was going to be, but since I knew it was coming, it gave me a kind of patience."
Herzog, who also featured Vera in the play After the Revolution, started many scenes without knowing how they'd end, or even if they'd end up in the script. One exercise led her to Amanda, a character that Leo brings home from a bar. Their sweet, awkward encounter clarified some of Leo's hang-ups, which is why it's in the final draft.
"On the stupidest level---and when I teach, I always encourage my students to think in a stupid way; I find it really useful---it's important that Leo can't get laid," Herzog says. "It's important that he's trying to connect with people sexually, which is the wrong way to go about things, and that that failure somehow leads him to being able to talk to his grandmother."
Some things, of course, can't be discovered until the play is in front of audiences, and with the start of the Lincoln Center production (which is part of their LCT3 series for emerging writers), Herzog has realized that the time between scenes is vital to the play's approach.
She explains, "A lot has to happen between the scenes, so in a lot of cases, there's this necessary pause, which I've actually gotten really into. The idea of it being 'scene, rest, scene, rest,' I hadn't imagined it that way, and I'm coming around to thinking there's something nice about it, besides just the practical necessity. We're just watching life go on in the apartment. We're sort of allowing the audience to experience time."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Pictured: Gabriel Ebert and Mary Louise Wilson in "4000 Miles." Photo by Erin Baiano