The Long Way Home: 4000 MILES, at PlayMakers

Dee Maaske as Vera and Schuyler Scott Mastain as Leo, Amy Herzog's 4000 MILES, at PlayMakers. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PlayMakers Repertory Company.

Dee Maaske as Vera, and Schuyler Scott Mastain as Leo, in Amy Herzog’s 4000 MILES, at PlayMakers through April 19. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PlayMakers Repertory Company.

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.

Dee Maaske as Vera and Schuyler Scott Mastain as Leo. Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

Dee Maaske as Vera, and Schuyler Scott Mastain as Leo, in PRC’s current production of Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles.    Photo: Jon Gardiner for PRC.

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Excellent Production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE at PlayMakers Rep

I don’t know whether to be more relieved or depressed by the acute timeliness of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of An Enemy of the People. On the one hand, Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 script tells us that people in power have acted against common sense and the public good at least since then, and Arthur Miller’s 1950 update makes it clear that the problems were the same in his era–in other words, our time, though out of joint, with its spyware and its science-deniers and its ghastly secret fracking chemicals and its brave, unworldly warriors like Edward Snowden, is not anomalous in history. On the other, humanity has not made much noticeable improvement in itself since Ibsen penned his blistering critique of the politics of power and money in the everlasting joust between the truth-armed individual and an obtuse majority.

The Ensemble (Allison Altman as Petra, Julia Gibson as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, facing) in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE,  by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

The Ensemble (Allison Altman as Petra, Julia Gibson as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, facing) in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

 

Directed by Tom Quaintance, the PlayMakers company and guest artists give Enemy an intense immediacy, highlighted by the astute design choices (McKay Coble, set, and Patrick Holt, costumes) that place it in the 1950s, but also in the 2015  infatuated with “mid-century modern” and snap brim hats. Quaintance has paced the show for clarity and, without excess, for maximum wallop, allowing the excellent actors to work naturally in Ibsen’s and Miller’s tautly drawn situations in which their characters’ psychologies must be dissected. It’s the most satisfying show of the PRC’s 2014-15 season thus far.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann, and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, in PRC's AN EMEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann, and Michael Bryan French as Dr. Stockmann, in PRC’s AN EMEMY OF THE PEOPLE. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

Briefly, the storyline is: Dr. Stockmann (Michael Bryan French, naive, flustered and implacable) has with his brother (naturally, it needs to be his brother) the Mayor, Peter Stockmann (Anthony Newfield, neurotic, politically skilled and implacable) have created a spa that’s bringing economic hope to their town. But after everything is built, the doctor discovers that the water is dangerously polluted. When the play opens, he’s just received the test results from the university, and he’s all set to tell the world, so that the healing spa waters won’t sicken anyone. The Mayor’s having none of that!

Julia Gibson and Michael Bryan French as Catherine and Dr. Stockmann. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Julia Gibson and Michael Bryan French as Catherine and Dr. Stockmann. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

 

On hand to make the most of this conflict are a firebrand newspaper editor, Hovstad (Benjamin Curns) and a high-strung reporter (Gregory DeCandia) and their waffling editor, Aslaksen (Jeffrey Blair Cornell, just perfect) ready to twist in whatever way will benefit them the most. The doctor’s eccentric father-in-law, Morten Kiil (David Adamson, fiendishly good) bumbles around the edges, looking for the spot to drive in a wedge. The doctor does have a family who love and support and hector him–Julia Gibson as Katherine Stockmann and Allison Altman as their daughter Petra also keep the testosterone levels from becoming too overwhelming. All these excitable people in this little town are counterbalanced by the doctor’s friend, the taciturn sea captain Horster (Derrick Ivey), who’s been about the world and seen places where people weren’t allowed to speak their minds. He didn’t like that.

Ivey continues to amaze. Here he stands like granite, so dense he draws your eye again and again, even though he has only a handful of lines. His Captain Horster contains a vital paradox: He stands behind the doctor not because he understands anything he’s on about, but because he believes he is free to say it. Yet if that’s not the way it’s to be, he’ll morph from the stable to the flowing, and take them all to freedom in America. (That’s about the only thing in the play that seems dated, that belief in a bighearted, clear-thinking America.)

The production was slightly marred on opening night by some technical difficulties involving smoke and water, and maybe the mob could use a few more bodies (although John Allore, as the drunk, is a host in himself), but it’s a powerful play, powerfully done. It runs only through March 15 in the Paul Green Theater. Tickets online or call 919-962-7529.

You can read the play, with a good introduction by Arthur Miller, here.

Most readers will already know that PlayMakers has announced the forthcoming departure of company producing artistic director Joseph Haj this July, when he will leave Chapel Hill for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. If not, see Byron Wood’s Indyweek piece here. I’d hoped we’d get to keep Haj for a couple of more years–he’s been a very positive force for this theater scene, beyond transforming PlayMakers. See my 2010 feature on Haj for a sense of how far we’ve come, and how lucky the Twin Cites will be to have him there. Bye, Joe.

Now the question is–who will be the next PRC artistic director? And–when?

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 - March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

Anthony Newfield as Peter Stockmann in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Arthur Miller. February 25 – March 15, 2015. Directed by Tom Quaintance. Photo by Jon Gardiner.

 

Next Year in the Theater

Aaron Davidman will perform his WRESTLING JERUSALEM at PRC2, Jan 7-11. Photo: Ken Friedman.

Aaron Davidman will perform his WRESTLING JERUSALEM at PRC2, Jan 7-11. Photo: Ken Friedman.

Whew. 2014 was another amazing year in Triangle theatre, but there’s little time off for the avid audience. 2015’s season starts right up on Jan. 2 with South Stream Productions presentation of Pinter’s The Caretaker at Common Ground. If Pinter’s not tough enough for you, try Wrestling Jerusalem, at PlayMakers PRC2 Jan. 7-11.

A one-man show, written and performed by Aaron Davidman, the work follows Davidman’s travels in Israel and Palestine as he attempts to unravel this knot of troubles, “to try,” in his words,”to understand the nuance and complexity that lives in the hearts of the human beings at the center of the conflict. Part personal memoir, part transformational theatre, in addition to myself, I play 17 different characters whom I meet along the way, each with his own story and perspective to share.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the PRC2 series is not just about watching a show–it’s about having a discussion afterwards, since civil discussion of intractable matters is one of the key roles of theater in society. I am deeply grateful to live in a place with real theatre that does just that, and deeply admiring of theatre leaders who bring tough work and defend it against all the forces of dilution and silence. You may have read of the recent firing of the artistic director of Washington, DC’s Theater J, Ari Roth, by the board of the Jewish Community Center, of which the theater is a part. In an unheard-of show of support, 60 or so artistic directors from theaters around the country sent an open letter of protest. I am proud to say that our own Joseph Haj, producing artistic director of PlayMakers–who keeps bringing us work like Rodney King and Wrestling Jerusalem–was one of the signatories. You can read an interview with Roth on Howlround here.

Hard on the heels of that show will come the eagerly awaited new work by Howard L. Craft, Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green. Directed by Joseph Megel and performed by the talented Alphonse Nicholson, the presentation by the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance will play in UNC’s Swain Hall Jan. 8-24.

Also opening Jan. 8, at Manbites Dog Theater, VECTOR‘s Habitus, an installation/performance by dancer/choreographer Leah Wilks and video/virtuality wizard Jon Haas. All this and more before the month’s half over. Rest now, ye merry ladies and gents–no rest in the new year.

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