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REVIEW: "4000 Miles"
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company


There are rough spots on the long road to healing. One man's journey is the subject of Amy Herzog's dramatic comedy, "4000 Miles," a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company and director Christopher Bremer present this affecting story, one which proves that while the distance between generations is long, the trip is worth the trouble.

The 21-year-old non-conformist, Leo Joseph-Connell (Joseph Seibert), sets off with his best – and probably his only – friend to bicycle cross country, Seattle to NYC. The fact that they live in Minnesota is only a minor inconvenience; they bike to the West Coast. The distance from the Twin Cities to New York via Seattle is a little over 4,000 miles – thus the title of the play.

The trip turns bizarrely tragic, but Leo, already alienated from his family and girlfriend, is determined to continue so he can "dip his front tire in the Atlantic Ocean." He turns up at three in the morning on the West Village doorstep of his maternal grandmother, Vera (Henrietta Hermelin), 91 years old and still an inveterate non-conformist herself. "I'm here because I don't know where else to be," he says. Though the reunion is as frosty and brittle as an icicle, the odd couple settles down for a month-long visit, during which Leo finally takes the time to come to terms with himself.

"4000 Miles" escapes some really stilted dialogue in its first act to become a very real, funny/sad script in the second. Act II, Scene 1 finds free spirit Vera sharing a pipe of righteous weed with her grandson. The drug-addled conversation that results from loosened tongues is so vivid it touched off a round of light applause opening night. This second act is also when Lydia Hiller so well interprets the emotional turmoil troubling "Bec," Leo's erstwhile girlfriend. It even has a little comic relief in the person of Leo's one night stand, outrageously over-the-top Amanda, played in dead-on Valley Girl style by Arianne Villareal.

Ultimately, though, the drama hinges on the evolving relationship between Leo and Vera. Youthful Joseph Seibert and ever-youthful Henrietta Hermelin enjoy the chemistry necessary to enliven the gradual understanding that grows between the pair. Understanding leads to truth. Although two generations separate the pair, they find that they're not too different.

Amy Herzog fashioned the character of Vera Joseph from the "words, habits and history" of her own grandmother. I recognize how real the character is, as her plaintive cry about how "disgusting" it is "not being able to find my words" could have been uttered by my 90-year-old mother. Novelist Jack Kerouac wrote, "Someday I'll find the right words and they'll be simple." Both Vera and Mother know that. In a time of crisis, it's the simple words that matter most.

SHOW DETAILS: The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company's "4000 Miles" continues at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday through Dec. 1, plus Wednesday, Nov. 20 & 27. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes. Tickets: $41-48. For information: 248-788-2900 or

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By John Quinn