Review: Fresno State’s ‘4,000 Miles’ is a fine showcase for actors, but the route can be predictable

In some cultures, grandparents live with their extended families. For a child in that environment, a grandmother is simply a part of life: nosy and loving, always there, most likely a cross between strict disciplinarian and indulgent nana.

Other people around the world wind up being raised by their grandmothers, and the bond between the two is more primary and parental.

Pictured above: Tyler Murphy is Leo and Kelsey Deroian is Vera in Amy Herzog’s ‘4,000 Miles.’  Photo: Fresno State University Theatre

But in Western culture, particularly in a country as large as ours, grandparents can be more distant and detached from daily life. That’s the case with Leo, a 21-year-old main character in Amy Herzog’s play “4,000 Miles.” He’s ridden all those miles on a bicycle from Washington state and ended up in the New York City building of his grandmother, 91-year-old Vera. At 3 a.m. he hoists his bike up to her rent-controlled flat, wandering into her cluttered apartment smelling as ripe as you’d expect from someone who just pedaled across the George Washington Bridge. Thus he kicks off a visit that begins as just a few days and then morphs into something longer. Leo has emotional baggage, a lot more than he could fit comfortably in his 50-pound pack. Will a dose of Grandma hit the spot?

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

This Fresno State production (which plays for two more performances, through Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Dennis and Cheryl Woods Theatre) is directed with a steady hand by Kathleen McKinley, who has a special knack for guiding intimate, small-cast productions. It’s also a fine showcase for its leading actors, Tyler Murphy (as Leo) and Kelsey Deroian (playing far, far beyond her years as Vera). The older character is based on the playwright’s real-life grandmother.

It’s an engaging enough experience, but I also found the storyline somewhat predictable. Not in a sitcom “very special moment” sense – the characters are far more developed and better written – but the narrative never really crackled for me. Leo experienced a terrible trauma on his cross-country bicycle trip, which is hinted at early and with circumvention. After the awkwardness of getting to know each other for the first time as adults (Leo hasn’t been to the apartment for years), what follows seems inevitable: The pair will go through some scrapes, patch those up with some poignant bonding, dive into family dynamics, and, finally, offer a revelatory moment in which the full, sad impact of Leo’s recent trauma can be unveiled.


Vera proudly considers herself a full-fledged communist, as only an American activist whose politics were forged in the ‘30s can use that label. She can be crabby, mostly because old age is disparaging, but there’s a sparkle and wit that shines even in the murkiest Memory Care moments. Leo, meanwhile, considers himself a “hippy” (not a card-carrying ‘70s version, though), mostly because of some vague rebelliousness (refusing to go to college despite his parents’ wishes) and some even vaguer devotion to principles (environmental activism, being kind, not being cynical). But he has a sharp, brusque streak to him that feels as if it could stray into the cruel. Surprisingly, he can be even crabbier than his grandmother, despite her 70-year head start. In perhaps the fiercest and saddest moment, Leo asks Vera if his parents were ever in love, and her practical (but not soothing) answer says a lot about her as a person: She’s a bit of a fussbudget, but she’s honest. I’m not sure you can say the same for him.

Two supporting characters add texture to the situation, and both offer particularly fine performances: Haley McNeely as a worried (and angry) girlfriend; and Molly Heng as a chattering, fashion-forward Asian art student who, in the play’s creepiest and most startling tangent, appears to be the “type” of woman that Leo prefers. (Especially because he has an adopted Asian sister.)

Jazmin Valdez’s costume design and Sunshine DeCastro’s lighting design are highlights from the creative team, and McKinley’s music direction and Regina Harris’ sound design offers smooth transitions, bringing us tunes from such singers as Bob Dylan and Janis Ian.

Fresno State University Theatre

Tyler Murphy, left, and Molly Heng in a scene from Fresno State’s ‘4,000 Miles’ by Amy Herzog.

Murphy gives a smooth, emotional take on the complicated (and, from my point of view, not very likable) Leo. And Deroian, a Fresno State theater alumna who went on to earn an MFA at UC Irvine and returns to this production as a guest artist, offers a sturdy performance as Vera. Her physical and vocal affectations – hesitant gait, sometimes halting speech, even the movements of her mouth – give us the essence of the age of her character without doing a full-on impression.

Why doesn’t the play completely click for me? Biography can be a powerful inspiration, but in this case, I can’t help but think that basing a prominent character on one’s own grandmother, even a grandmother as interesting as hers, somehow limited Herzog’s imagination as a playwright. She saw the real person on the page and stage. As an audience member, I didn’t make that leap. Perhaps a real-life character can be too specific.

Yet on another level, I’m still moved by Herzog’s exploration of the generation gap. There is love between these two, which gives the play warmth and meaning. Leo and Vera both discover early on they like their coffee black. Perhaps some things are genetic.

And I’m intrigued by the idea that grandparents and their grandchildren can become closer, even if they’ve drifted apart. That didn’t happen with me and one of my grandmothers, and now it’s too late. “4,000 Miles” gives me hope for those who have more time.

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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

    Thank you, Donald. Always appreciate your informed and informative overviews, and I especially appreciate how you close this one. As always, makes me want to see the play.


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