My grandmother is not a sentimental person — far from it. We have this running joke in my family about her response to emotions — keep them in and shove them down. When I was about 15 years old, I concluded one of our long-winded mandatory birthday calls with an effervescent “I love you Grandma.” Her rushed response: “Okay, bye-bye now.” Her email sign-off, “Love, Grandma”, is perhaps the only display of her affection.
At Wednesday’s opening night performance of “4000 Miles” at the Long Wharf Theatre, I was immediately reminded of my grandmother. And I wasn’t alone in sensing familiarity in Vera (Zoaunne Leroy), a hard-of-hearing, befuddled 91 year old. “She reminded me of my Aunt Gladys!” asserted one audience member. I saw elements of my grandmother in Vera’s tough, comical and sometimes crude mannerisms, and in her reluctance to share a physical embrace. On the other hand, I doubt that many people can boast about having a Marxist, Progressive, peace activist grandmother — one who is willing to share a bong with her grandson while discussing his late grandfather’s sexual habits.
Micah Stock plays Leo, the archetypal hippie grandson who stays at his grandmother’s house following a cross-country cycling trip. His rising inflections, exorbitant use of the word “like” and constant slouch can make it hard to take his character seriously, especially when he predictably eschews social norms such as the use of a computer or cell phone.
After a long period of separation, the formerly estranged grandmother and grandson duo begin rebuilding familial ties, supporting each other through heartache and loss. Vera’s husband has been deceased for 10 years, and she still hasn’t taken his name off of the apartment listing. Leo is shaken by a recent death and break-up. Together, the intergenerational pair tries to reestablish their respective places in society. With the magical relationship that grows onstage between Leroy and Stock, the show becomes a raw tribute to love, loss and continuation after death.
Our generation of theatergoers has been criticised for its need to be constantly entertained with one-liners and comedic downfalls. While I was endlessly amused by the production’s one-liners, never once did the show sacrifice truth for comedy. The actors were never afraid of standing alone in the silence of a dark stage.
At the play’s climax, the stage is almost pitch black when Leo divulges to Vera the pain he has suffered over the loss of his best friend. Without a division of stage light, the audience becomes part of the experience. We were able to immerse ourselves in the all-consuming, seemingly never-ending darkness of loss. I had tears rolling down my face. But just as suddenly, light reappeared and my tears soon replaced with laughter. The poignant scene is capped with a comedic twist.
In an attempt to assure his girlfriend of the sincerity of his love, Leo quotes the poet and Sufi mystic Rum. “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field,” he says. “I’ll meet you there when the soul lies down in the grass and the world is too full to talk about.”
Maybe, like Rumi implies, there is no right or wrong way to live, no answer to how we should express love. Emotion goes beyond these confines. Maybe my grandmother does it best. We can lie down in the grass together where the world and love is too full, real and present to be commented upon; words cannot justify their purity. Sometimes Vera’s and my grandmother’s love must be inferred, but it is beautiful nonetheless when you realize how much they care.
As I was prepared to leave the theatre, I felt a tinge of anger at the audience for not giving the performers a standing ovation. But maybe it was only because they were too afraid to express their love in such an overt, ostentatious way. Instead, we sat in our seats clinging to the hope of capturing this moment as a memorable snapshot. We mourned the loss of the show with the bittersweet sorrow of no longer being allowed to continue with Vera and Leo’s story.