4000 Miles by Amy Herzog – La Boite Indie and Mophead & Catnip Productions at the Roundhouse Theatre

Image: Gez Xavier Mansfield

La Boite’s Indie season is here again. It kicked off what I like to think is the ‘official theatre season’ in Brisbane – as May rolls around into what passes for winter here – on a warm night last week.  The first of the 2014 indies is a lovely production directed by Anthony Skuse of Amy Herzog‘s 4000 MILES, a multiple-award winner fairly fresh from off-Broadway, and from Mophead and Catnip who are based in Sydney. Welcome to town!

Most, if not all, indie productions that are hosted by La Boite each year are first try-outs of local works with all the thrills and spills they bring with them. This year, the season begins with a show from out of town, and one that has been well run-in at ATYP’s 2013 Under the Wharf independent season. I wonder does this signal a change of future direction for the La Boite Indie program?

The four-hander ensemble are wonderfully-well cast. Aileen Huynh, Diana McLean, Joanna Downing and Stephen Multari play with an ease and confidence born of familiarity with one another and with the play – 90 minutes (without interval) of intimate, ensemble conversation. The Roundhouse, in indie mode, is just about the perfect size for this darling play – no slouch in the drama department as a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. By turns comic and intensely moving, 4000 Miles is all about the difficulty of just connecting.

Ms McLean and Mr Multari are cast as Vera and Leo – grandmother and grandson respectively. She’s a sassy 91 year-old lefty and he’s a troubled 21 year-old. Here, incidentally, are a couple of killer roles for a senior actress and a young man; we don’t see many of these. In fact, I can’t recall one that’s as affecting nor that bridges the yawning generation gap in such a quirky, loving way since Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude back in 1971 took us all so by surprise.

Speaking of gaps and distances, 4000 Miles (the distance of Leo’s bike-ride cross country from Seattle to NYC) is in a far less crazy key than Harold and Maud’s. Leo is deeply distressed by an incident at home that involved his adopted sister. Added to this burden is the outcome of an accident in Kansas – about half way en route. Rather than return home, Leo continues his journey to the east coast. On arrival in NYC, it is his grandmother to whom he turns. Her little apartment downtown is the only place he can go.  Over the course of a month he and she ‘connect.’

It’s one of those pitch-perfect American family dramas set in the key of realism where characters and the plot are as fresh, rich and as engaging as one another. If this play does seem to go on just a wee bit long, and if the dialects do wander a bit across the country, well that’s perfectly fine too. By the last 20 minutes you’ve fallen in love with the protagonists anyway, and it’s like spending a quiet night in a living room just enjoying the company of people you find you actually care about.

Ms Huynh (Amanda) and Ms Downing (Bec) are equally delightful in supporting cameo roles. They glide in and out of the action as girlfriend, sister and a deliciously drawn pick-up date (Ms Huynh).

Set and costume design (Gez Xavier Mansfield) and Lighting (Sara Swersky) create the world of Vera’s West Village apartment. No spoilers, but Leo’s beautiful outpouring to his grandmother towards the end of the play (done in monologue form) is lit with the barest glow on the faces of the protagonists. It is utterly perfect.

4000 Miles plays at the Roundhouse until May 17.