Portrayals of old people are hazardous in the theater. Will the signs of decrepitude be so obvious that the performance seems hedged about with a few tricks? Is there a person underneath those handy gimmicks and mannerisms that readily tempt the actor?
When the playwright is guilty of putting forth a narrow view of aging, actors may have little choice but to accept the constraints, even if the result is caricature. When vibrant individuality is built into the script, however, there's a heavy responsibility to find it, display it and keep the conventional markers of old age from taking over.
That responsibility is fully assumed and triumphantly carried out by Martha Jacobs as Vera, an aging Greenwich Village widow living with feisty independence who abruptly has to respond to the unannounced visit of her footloose bicyclist grandson Leo. Jacobs' success is set up well by the playwright, Amy Herzog, in 4000 Miles, which entered its penultimate weekend Thursday evening at the Phoenix Theatre.
Come to think of it, old age in real life tends to smother individuality. Voice characteristics become reduced to a telltale scratchiness, the personality expressed in how we walk subsides into a careful, generic shuffle, hearing loss mutes idiosyncratic ways we have of responding to what's said to us. Jacobs, while mastering such physical characteristics, plus Vera's frustration with her failing memory, finds the sparkle in Vera, a widowed leftist and urban survivor achingly aware that the links to her best years are being snapped one by one.
Herzog's play, a series of vignettes cunningly constructed to keep us eager for the revelations that are sure to come, avoids making Leo's development in 4000 Miles the result of steady applications of grandmotherly wisdom. Vera's reliance on old memories and her struggle with new realities don't permit rubber-stamp sympathy with Leo and the way he's chosen to live. She's blunt, untactful and easily irritated.
Under the direction of Bill Simmons, Jacobs and Andrew Martin (Leo) struggle to achieve a difficult rapport, with obstacles including family problems stirred up by his mother. Martin's portrayal of the athletic, self-centered bicyclist all too eager to escape sticky situations amounts to a model of virile charm blended with what Vera identifies as the main problem with men: stupidity.
Sound designer Tim Brickley's choice of recorded interludes includes songs by Woody Guthrie, the patron saint of the romance of drifting. Eager for adventure and the chance to learn new things as long as no one's directing him, Leo finally finds a poignant way to connect with the demands of ordinary life in his new environment.
Many good people lack a moral compass, a deficiency they can't get away with for long — and remain good. Leo is such a person, and the wreck of his relationship with fellow cyclist Bec (touchingly played by Jacqueline Keyes) sends up flares about his hidden desperation.
His attempt at a one-night stand with another woman (given firecracker intensity by Arianne Villareal) fizzles when this garrulous daughter of Chinese immigrants, who now sit atop a "dim sum empire" in San Francisco, discovers she is surrounded by Communist books and memorabilia. Leo tellingly tries to calm her down by saying Communism was "like recycling" for his grandmother's generation. At some point, naivete and detachment threaten to send every rolling stone over the brink.
Vera is around to keep that from happening to Leo. Fortunately, this production's finesse and the combination of suspense and pure heart with which Herzog tells her story liberate it from signaling too soon how well she'll manage this unsought assignment.