— Nicola Cavendish and Nathan Barrett. Photo by David Cooper
This is jerry's review of the Arts Club production at the Stanley in 2014.
A single moment on opening night of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles at the Stanley said it all.
Ninety-one-year-old Vera, played by Nicola Cavendish, sometimes has difficulty remembering simple words. At one point Vera struggles in frustration trying to tell her grandson Leo (Nathan Barrett) the name of a particular fruit.
Opening night someone in the audience yelled “avocado!” just before Leo said it. Cavendish stayed in character. She did a long slow burn in the direction of the perpetrator, followed by a knowing nod, half-Vera, half Nicky, and brought the house down. She let the laugh go on for a beat or two then quickly resumed the scene.
We’re so fortunate to have two of the most remarkable performers in Canada on stage in Vancouver this month. Puppet maestro Ronnie Burkett returns to The Cultch with The Daisy Theatre and Vancouver’s Cavendish graces 4000 Miles in director Roy Surette’s Centaur Theatre/Arts Club co-pro.
It’s a production filled with evidence of the master actor at work. The play itself isn’t bad either.
A 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist, 4000 Miles is a nicely understated instance of the familiar dysfunctional American family play genre. It’s also a good example of the 21st century odd-couple generation gap play.
Vera is surprised when 20-ish grandson Leo turns up at her Manhattan apartment in the middle of the night, having pedalled his bike all the way from Seattle. Along the way he stopped communicating with his mother in Minneapolis. Some of the play’s least interesting discussions involve Leo’s broken relationship with his mother, one of a number of important characters we never meet.
Long-haired Leo, who calls himself a hippie but seems more of a slacker, has plenty of other issues that we get to know over the weeks he stays at Vera’s. He has a peculiar connection with his adopted sister back home, a lot of ‘splainin’ to do to his not very likeable girlfriend Bec (Ella Simon) at college in New York, and mysterious regrets about his cycling companion Micah. Something has happened to Micah that will only be revealed near the end.
Mostly though, Leo lazes around, letting grandma clean up after him, do his laundry and pay his bills. Despite his biking prowess and New Age attitudes, he acts more like an adolescent than an adult. Even his fights with Vera, which get angry enough for them to really yell at each other, unfold like the fights a teenager would have with his mom.
The nice thing about these arguments is that they seem real. What feels most real in the play is Vera herself. Herzog writes her with great sensitivity and Cavendish gives her richly human comic dimension.
Once divorced and once widowed, Vera lives alone. Her mind is sharp except for her difficulty finding words. She needs a hearing aid and her movements are a little creaky but she is otherwise high functioning. She and an elderly neighbour exchange phone calls every day to make sure the other is still alive.
An Old Lefty whose politics remain in the background except when Dylan tunes and ’60s civil rights anthems play during scene changes, Vera puts up with Leo’s nonsense because she’d rather have him around than be alone. But she’s bluntly impatient with his irresponsibility and sometimes explodes. Even her explicit talk to Leo and Bec about her past sex life seems only slightly exaggerated because her character is so very alive and Cavendish gives her such pleasure in the recounting.
From the moment Leo enters and Vera greets him with “Are you high?” Cavendish owns the audience. Her simple inflection can make an ordinary word or phrase hysterically funny. When Leo says he won’t bother her, he’ll just camp somewhere, she responds, “This is MANHATTAN,” with an emphasis that says more than multiple episodes of Seinfeld.
Cavendish is also a wonderful physical clown. One of the biggest laughs involves Vera picking up a backpack left in the middle of the floor. When she goes to toss it out of the way the momentum of her throwing arm carries her halfway across the room. It’s a gag reminiscent of Chaplin or Keaton and no less skilfully performed.
Barrett does a good job playing Leo as straight man to Cavendish’s Vera, and Agnes Tong significantly enhances the comedy as a loopy Chinese-American party girl Leo brings home for sex. Turns out Leo’s adopted sister is Chinese, too. But that doesn’t really go anywhere.
In fact all the play’s would-be revelations turn out to be pretty low-key and anticlimactic, which I didn’t mind at all. Most American plays of this type take their dramatic reveals much too seriously. I liked the fact that 4000 Miles feels like a play, not an overheated TV drama.
And I loved watching Nicky Cavendish bring it to such vivid life.