PlayMakers Repertory Company‘s final Mainstage production this season is Amy Herzog‘s smart, feel-good play, 4000 Miles. Like an intimate Vuillard interior with figures, it settles easily around the viewer, offering acute psychology and generous humanity along with the patterned carpets and plump cushions, to those who can give themselves over to its dense, fine-stroke construction. For those who can’t, it’s still a nice picture.
Vera’s a feisty 90-ish Manhattanite, widowed, plowing ahead with life despite increasing frailty and forgetfulness. She’s an old Lefty in a very nice rent-controlled apartment. Leo’s a young man having a hard time growing up, and he’s in the midst of his first encounter with big grief. Having cycled from Seattle, he turns up at Grandmother Vera’s with his bike and his pack in the wee hours as the play opens; soon it becomes clear that they haven’t seen each other for years, and don’t know each other well at all.
Obviously, this set-up could easily turn to sap, or founder in the sit-com shallows. But between Herzog’s nuanced character development and gentle humor, and Desdemona Chiang’s really lovely direction, with its luxurious pace and naturalistic emotional build, PRC’s 4000 Miles consoles the heart while satisfying the mind. Schuyler Scott Mastain gives an authentic performance as Leo, taking him from childish, loutish, baffled with love, lust and sorrow and wounded pride, to a man who can step up to what needs to be done. Leo’s transition to manhood is full of jerks and twists, but Mastain’s performance is smooth and unshowy, even when dealing with his (ex)girlfriend (Arielle Yoder as Bec) and his would-be hot date (Sehee Lee as Amanda).
But it’s Dee Maaske, as Vera, who gives the substance to the production. It’s a fine thing to watch class after class of talented, good-looking young MFA students learning their craft at PlayMakers as the seasons come and go, but to see an actor who’s honed and polished her craft over decades on the stage takes pleasure to another level. It’s also wonderful for an old woman to be a main character. Vera contains elements of the Crone, and the Wise Woman, but her complicated humanity is not subsumed in those simplistic types, and Maaske makes her vividly alive. Time and grief have resigned Vera to many things, but not to being seen without her teeth, and not to any kind of dependence since her husband’s death. But without knowing it, she’s let her strength form a shell around her. Leo’s bumptious presence cracks her rigidity, and together they experience family intimacy again, fueling each other for the next bit of hard road. Herzog, Chiang and Maaske give us a beautiful portrait of a woman in her latter years–venerable, but sometimes laughable. Maaske’s performance as Vera is one of the subtlest seen on the PRC stage in recent memory.
The designers have also excelled. Jan Chambers attractive set–like the aforementioned Vuillard paintings–provides detailed information about its occupants, and her costuming further explicates the characters moving under Xavier Pierce’s purposefully quotidian lighting. Robert Dagit’s pleasing sound design heightens the drama just enough to keep us remembering that this is a play, without stealing the fun of feeling that we are peeking familiarly into private lives.
The April 4 opening of 4000 Miles also saw the final Mainstage curtain speech from Joseph Haj, the PRC producing artistic director for the last nine seasons. Haj got a little emotional as he spoke of his forthcoming departure for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and his time at PlayMakers. “I earned my [Actors’ Equity] union card in this very room, a hundred years ago,” he said, referring to his time as an MFA student in the Professional Actor Training Program. When Haj took over the leadership of PlayMakers, it was at the lowest point of its history. With artistic courage, uncautious energy, considerable charm and smooth diplomacy, Haj has made the PRC into a powerhouse producer of new work as well as classic drama and musical theater. “I’m so grateful to be a part of that story,” he said. Back at you, Joe. Thanks for being here.
Associate artistic director Jeff Meanza will also be departing for the Twin Cities, leaving all the space at the top to be filled by fresh artistic leadership. According to PRC managing director Michele Weathers, the search for Haj’s replacement has not yet begun, and his position may take a year or more to fill. Weathers will be guiding the ship in the meantime, and all the staff will carry on with the already-scheduled 2015-2016 season, the last one stamped “Joe Haj.”
The final production of this season will take place in the small Kenan Theater, when PRC² presents Mary’s Wedding, April 29-May 3.