Amy Herzog takes us along for the road trip of a lifetime in "4000 Miles."
Herzog is a young emerging playwright who achieved overnight fame with "4000 Miles," which was a hit at New York's Lincoln Center last year. Dubbed one of the best plays of 2012 by Time magazine, this is a quietly resonant piece in which the emotional power sneaks up on you slowly until you find a bit of a lump in your throat. Beautifully directed by Mark Rucker, this sharply observed journey through life's roadblocks runs through Feb. 10 at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater in its regional premiere. The rare new play that lives up to its hype, "4000 Miles" crackles with laughter and insight from start to finish. It's a simple and lovely 105-minute gem that's worth seeing, no matter how far you have to travel.
Truthfulness is the key to the play's unmannered wistfulness. Herzog, whose "The Wendy Play" made its world premiere with ACT's MFA program in 2008, has a knack for understated characters facing everyday hurdles with equal parts pluck and self-destructiveness. The lack of artifice is stunning; "4000 Miles" feels less like a slice of life than a series of perfectly captured moments between eccentric people we instantly recognize and won't soon forget. The playwright ("Belleville," "The Great God Pan") based the character of Vera on her own grandmother, and you can sense her love for the woman as well as her sensitivity to the indignities of age.
Vera (the sublime Susan Blommaert) is a 91-year-old lefty who's proud of her communist credentials. She has spent her life fighting for social justice. She's got a smart-aleck sense of humor and grit to spare. But now she finds herself alone, her husband and friends dead. Her hands shake, she has lost her once notable command of the language, and she often struggles to get her thoughts out. Some days she does not have the gumption to leave her Greenwich Village apartment. Some days the only person she talks to is an elderly neighbor who calls every night to make sure Vera is still breathing. It's not a cheery call.
That's why part of Vera is thrilled when her scruffy-cute 21-year-old grandson Leo (Reggie Gowland) shows up on her doorstep in the middle of the night. Leo is a bit of a lost boy, a crunchy-granola hipster biking cross country, trying to find himself. A neo-hippie with no commitments and no cellphone, he is having a hard time leaping from childhood to maturity.
His socially conscious girlfriend, Bec (Julia Lawler), recently went to college, which caused a rift because Leo is a dropout who disdains conformity. In his way, he is also alone in the world. As the play unfolds, we learn that he has had a brush with tragedy that has shaken his spirit.
Although they seem like an odd couple, Vera and Leo settle into a cozy rhythm as they grapple with their fears. He is worried about adulthood, she fears mortality -- and they learn that facing one anxiety is much like another.
Herzog doesn't push her themes in this coming-of-age tale, and that's why the play's piercing sense of melancholy dawns so gradually and naturally. No matter which of these characters you relate to most easily, the playwright has a gift for stirring your empathy. In between the play's many bursts of wit, "4000 Miles" also prods the disturbing realization that all of us must eventually confront death on intimate terms. That's why the generational bond between these two is so strong. They both carry the weight of that grief.
In one hilarious scene, Leo hooks up with an art school party girl named Amanda (a sparkling turn by Camille Mana). In just a few moments, Herzog summons up the mystery and sadness of a one-night stand that goes off the rails. She also creates a wonderfully warm twist on the manic pixie dream girl theme.
In another interlude, the grandmother and grandson get extremely high to mark the equinox, as is Leo's custom. Their charmingly trippy and rambling conversation edges into a discussion of love, sex and anatomy that will make you chuckle as well as cringe.
In one of the play's most memorable scenes, Leo reveals the dark secret he has been hiding, baring his soul to his grandma. The result is comic yet poignant.
Like everything in this exquisitely calibrated production, the effect is bittersweet.
By Amy Herzog, presented by American Conservatory Theater
Through: Feb. 10
415 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 1 hour,
45 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $20-$105, 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org