ST. PETERSBURG — A cycling trek from coast to coast plus a fateful side trip in the middle add up to roughly 4,000 miles.
In Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles, distance is a human condition that can be overcome.
The comedic drama by the Pulitzer finalist, currently in production at American Stage, nabbed a 2012 Obie Award for its understated honesty and humor.
Directed with a deft, judicious touch by Benjamin T. Ismail, 4000 Miles begins with 21-year-old cyclist Leo (Casey Worthington) showing up at 3 a.m. on the West Village doorstep of his grandmother Vera (Janis Stevens). Having just pedaled cross-country, Leo insists he's only staying overnight after his unfiltered grandmother voices her disapproval of him not calling his mother.
Leo winds up staying with the Marxist matriarch a solid month. During that time, the two bicker, bond, share a bong and learn a few things about one another.
Leo, a crunchy granola stoner type who shuns technology, has been on the outs with his parents and girlfriend after a horrific accident en route to New York. Though goofy at times, Worthington avoids caricature in his portrayal of Leo. He is both funny and sympathetic as the hapless youth.
Through bits of exposition, we learn that Leo has let down just about everyone he knows, but living with his fierce but increasingly frail grandmother leads to personal redemption.
The contradictory facets of feisty, eccentric Vera win Leo and the audience over under Stevens' command. According to Herzog's script, she's "tiny and frail but not without fortitude." The Drama Desk Award nominee nails her portrayal with a pitch-perfect performance. Stevens conveys Vera's integrity, irreverence, tremors and speech/memory difficulties with natural finesse, making us realize the pitfalls of age without obvious tugs at our heartstrings.
Interesting side note: Vera is based on Herzog's grandmother, and her story is also explored in the playwright's first play, After the Revolution. In 4000 Miles, biographical facts about Herzog's real-life elder come to light via both Vera and an unseen neighbor next door.
Stevens and Worthington's co-stars bring dimension to their more broadly scripted characters. Dani Faitelson convincingly plays Leo's frustrated girlfriend, Bec, an ambitious grad student at her wit's end.
Maya Handa Naff, who recently fought off Victorian-era walkers in Freefall Theatre's The Importance of Being Earnest with Zombies, brings some surprising dimension to Amanda, the bimbo-ish socialite Leo brings home for a one night stand. The Chinese-American fashionista becomes deeply offended when she sees Communist literature on Vera's bookshelves, invoking the struggle of her parents and grandparents.
Speaking of those shelves, the Manhattan apartment envisioned by scenic designer Steve Mitchell (with assistance by Robert Creedon and Betty Jane Parks) is surprisingly realistic — what you'd picture a home inhabited by an elderly widow who reads the New York Times arts section would look like. Modern art books and tasteful decor juxtapose with antiquated fixtures like a yellow rotary phone.
Both Ismail's direction and Chris Baldwin's gentle lighting makes us feel like we're in the living room with Vera and Leo. Catherine Cann further conveys the believability with her on-point costume design, complemented by Rachel Harrison's sound effects and Stephen Ray's capable stage management.
4000 Miles is the only play in American Stage's 2015-16 season set in the 21st century, offering more irreverent humor and playful nods to contemporary culture than other offerings at Pinellas playhouses. Sophisticated productions in the same vein would no doubt draw younger audiences and may be more reflective of the theater's next season, hinted at by producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte in her welcome speech.