Theater: Going the distance

Novato Theater Company’s ‘4,000 Miles’ delivers

By Charles Brousse

“There’s gold in them thar hills!” That (or something like it) has long been the mantra whispered in my ear by advocates of the Novato Theater Company (NTC).

I’ve been following this group since the mid-1970s, when (by another name) they performed at the now-shuttered Novato Community House. On performance nights, patrons seated side by side at long tables enthusiastically gulped beer from large glass pitchers, endlessly refilled, as they cheered their favorites on a makeshift stage. My goal was to stay sober enough to take accurate notes. After a while, I grew tired of the scene (which reminded me of Walpurgisnacht in Goethe’s Faust) and stopped attending.

In the years since, as the company moved from one temporary venue to another, someone would recommend that I review this or that “wonderful” play or musical. I’d go, hoping to encounter genuine progress. For whatever reason, it never seemed to be the right choice. Then came the current staging of Amy Herzog’s 4,000 Miles at NTC’s homey little theater in a nondescript Novato shopping center. Voices were again predicting something exceptional. Like the dubious prospector who decides to give the motherlode one more chance, I headed up the highway and, to my amazement and delight, discovered … gold!

Although a strong production can hide many of the inadequacies of a weak script, it’s when the two are of the same high quality that genuine theater magic happens. This is the case with 4,000 Miles. Amy Herzog is one of the most promising among the latest crop of East Coast female writers who trained at Yale, Brown or similar places before having their careers launched off-Broadway. Since her first play, After the Revolution (2010), was warmly received by critics and audiences, three others have been given similar welcomes. Of the group, 4,000 Miles is the most prominent; its widespread recognition includes a 2012 Obie for Best New American Play, and finalist ranking for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Productions at regional theaters include our own A.C.T. a few seasons back.

Herzog’s forte is not intricate plots, boundary-testing sexual situations or grand theatrical effects. Instead, like Chekhov (whom she says is one of her major influences), she concentrates on character, drawing much of her material from observations of family and friends. She also mirrors Chekhov in her insistence that life provides no final conclusions—only a lot of loose ends that are tidied up by historians and in the survivors’ varied memories.

To be successful, 4,000 Miles’ simple, character-driven storyline requires actors who are comfortable with Herzog’s love of detail, and a director who allows things to proceed naturally, without unnecessary embellishment. Fortunately, NTC has both. Jesse Lumb turns in a bravura performance as Leo, a young man who chooses to bicycle from Seattle to New York City (a journey that Herzog has also made) to visit his grandmother. He’s hoping that it will help to clarify his thoughts about the future and his relationship with a mother who constantly reproves his lack of direction, but those ambitions evaporate when a highway accident in Kansas claims the life of his best friend and riding companion.

Emotionally distressed, he knocks on the door of Grandma Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment at 3am. Portrayed by Shirley Nilsen Hall, she combines familial empathy with crusty observations about the parlous state of the world as seen through the eyes of a lifelong Marxist radical. A proposed overnight visit lengthens into weeks, during which the two warm to each other as Leo severs relations with a former girlfriend (nicely rendered by Emily Radosevich) and turns down the overtures of a bar acquaintance (a very aggressive, sexually liberated Courtney Yuen). Finally, he departs for outdoor work in Colorado, and Vera, whose friend across the hall has just died, is left alone. Norman A. Hall directs the gripping production with just the right light touch.

That’s all there is, and yet—as Mercutio says when wounded by the Capulet gang in Romeo and Juliet—“It is enough.”

NOW PLAYING: 4,000 Miles runs through April 17 at the Novato Theater Company, 5420 Nave Dr., Suite C, Novato; 415/883-4498; novatotheatercompany.org.

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