Bridging the generation gap: 5 Things to Know about Fresno State’s new production of ‘4,000 Miles’

Fresno State University Theatre kicks off its 2022-23 season with Amy Herzog’s “4,000 Miles,” directed by Kathleen McKinley. It’s now in its opening weekend. (Ashley Flowers, writing in the Fresno State Collegian, has a good overview of the show.) It opened Friday, Sept. 30, and continues through Saturday, Oct. 8.

Here are Five Things to Know about the production:


It’s a generational adventure.

Pictured above: Tyler Murphy, left, and Kelsey Deroian star in ‘4,000 Miles.’ Photo: Fresno State

In “4,000 Miles,” we follow the story of 21-year-old Leo, a disaffected college student on a cross-country bicycle road trip. When adversity strikes, he heads for New York City and the West Village apartment of Vera, his feisty 91-year-old grandmother. As unlikely roommates, they get to know each other as adults even as they infuriate and bewilder the other with their generational differences.

Leo is what McKinley calls a New Age Midwestern hippy with progressive-liberal views. His grandmother, however, considers herself a Communist, a label born from coming of age in the 1930s. There’s a disconnect between the two. She’s more interested in radical systemic change. He’s more concerned with respect for disenfranchised groups and not committing microaggressions.


That’s Grandma up there on stage.

Herzog’s character of Vera is sharply defined and rooted in a particular time and place. That’s because Vera is drawn largely from Herzog’s own grandmother, a noted West Village activist named Leepee Joseph who was one of the oldest protesters at the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. (She was one of the most photographed, too; an image made by Jim Kiernan showed her placidly holding a sign that read “Tax the #@&%ing Rich.”)


The character of Leo is based on one of Herzog’s cousins.

In a 2012 New York Times interview with grandmother and granddaughter conducted shortly before the 95-year-old Joseph died, the older woman reflected on the experience of seeing herself (and her apartment) on stage:

Ms. Herzog admitted that while she had few qualms about writing the play, the prospect of her family seeing it made her “very nervous.” She was particularly wary of her grandmother’s opinion. “The Vera character is based so specifically and directly on you——” she began.

“Some of it word for word,” her grandmother interjected.

“If you hated the play, or if you felt like I was exploiting you. …”

“No, no, none of these feelings. You captured what I said and put it in the proper place and made it flow.”

McKinley includes Joseph’s obituary in the Fresno State theater program.


McKinley is a fan of the playwright.

Biggest clue: The longtime Fresno State director doesn’t usually repeat a playwright. (So many plays, so little time.) But Herzog’s work is an exception. She directed the playwright’s “The Great God Pan” for Fresno State in 2017.

Herzog has steadily built a reputation as one of the nation’s best playwrights. “No one currently writing for the theater has a sharper grasp of character, or more sheer storytelling technique,” Time magazine declared in 2011.

When McKinley read “4,000 Miles,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2013, McKinley knew she wanted to direct it.

“I told myself I’m going to do that in front of an audience,” she says.


The cast is small but mighty.

Playing Leo is senior theater major Tyler Murphy, who has excelled on stage at Fresno State. Molly Heng returns in a supporting role, and Haley McNeely makes her Fresno State debut.

As Vera, Fresno State alum Kelsey Deroian is many, many decades away from 91, but she is a little older than the other members of the cast. Deroian went on to earn an MFA at UC Irvine, and McKinley jumped at the chance to bring her back as a guest artist. McKinley says Deroian has a keen handle on the character’s spark.


It’s time to connect.

After a vociferous campaign to keep university theater going through the pandemic – including a stint translating live theater into recorded broadcasts – McKinley is excited that things seem to be getting back to normal. One thing that strikes her about “4,000 Miles” is the way Covid exacerbated the separation between grandparents and grandchildren. For safety reasons, older people were particularly isolated during the pandemic. That distance might be insurmountable for some. She’s happy that the play feels particularly appropriate for the moment.

“This seems like the right time to do it,” she says.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Jackie Ryle

    Thanks for the always great overview, Donald. Makes me really want to see it!


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