I’ve had grandparents on my mind recently. Shirley Temple’s passing on Feb. 10 reminded me of her 1937 film Heidi, the story of a neglected orphan in Switzerland, who is handed off to her gruff grandfather. He is warmed by her spirit, and she basks in the glow. When they are unjustly separated, she is bereft — and as a sentimental kid in the late 1950s watching the black-and-white movie, I wept, in part because of my attachment to my own paternal grandfather.
My dad’s father, Arthur Pender, lived with our family. We shared two small adjacent bedrooms in the attic of my parents’ home. Every evening, he had to walk through my bedroom after my bedtime, often teasing me by asking, “Are you awake?” A quiet British immigrant, he was 65 when I was born, 70 when he moved in with my family. Although he had a modest education, he loved to read — we had a set of encyclopedias that he pored over, scouring them from A to Z and quizzing me on topics he thought I should know: state capitals, precious gems, the kings of England. He instilled in me a lifelong curiosity about the world.
My memories of grandparents stirred last week when I attended Amy Herzog’s 2011 play 4000 Miles (which opened last week and runs through March 9 at the Cincinnati Playhouse). In Herzog’s dramedy, a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, Leo doesn’t know his feisty grandmother Vera very well. She’s 91; he’s 21 and hasn’t seen her in 10 years. She has spent her life in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village as an outspoken political rabble-rouser, committed to radical leftist causes and suspicious of people in authority.
Leo calls himself a “hippie”; his life with his family in eco-friendly St.
Paul, Minn., and friends in Seattle has been worlds apart from Vera’s urban surroundings. (In fact, he has bicycled to Manhattan — the 4,000 miles of the play’s title.) But they have considerable common ground — she has an imperfect relationship with her nervous stepdaughter Jane, Leo’s mother, and he’s weary of Jane’s constant fretting about his life. Vera and Leo are leading isolated lives, she due to age and he following a recent tragedy in which a friend died in a freak cycling accident as they traveled cross-country.
Actress Rosemary Prinz isn’t quite 91, but she’s been a working actress since 1947, both on TV (as a regular on the soap opera As the World Turns from 1956 to 1968) and onstage for decades (performing in more than 300 plays). She brings a wealth of worldly experience to the role of Vera. She says she loves the way the play shows “the complexities of growing old and the equally daunting ones of growing up.” That’s surely the voice of experience.
Robbie Tann’s Leo is a spirited individualist who marches to his own drummer, an outdoorsy “mountain man” in the words of a free-spirited young woman he meets in a bar. But he is a sensitive soul with a troubled undertow, still profoundly shaken by his friend’s tragic death, an event he feels he might have caused. He and Vera get on each other’s nerves, but over the course of their story, we see the birth of an understanding, supportive relationship between them.
Prinz brings a wonderfully natural and funny feistiness to her portrait of Vera. Her hearing is poor, but she sometimes neglects to use her hearing aid — leading to some funny, poignant moments, pulling us up short after Leo’s sad recounting of friend Micah’s death. But when he puts his head on her lap for consolation, there’s a tenderness that says far more than words about their bond. Tann handles Leo’s evolution convincingly, and Prinz gives Vera a blend of candor and spark that makes you wish she were your grandmother.
In Vera’s pleasant, rent-controlled New York apartment, they learn valuable lessons from one another, discovering unexpected linkages and attitudes bridging their seven-decade gap.
Playhouse artistic director Blake Robison, who staged the production, confesses, “I didn’t know my grandmothers very well — just the odd Christmas visit or special occasion. I expect there’s much I can learn from the characters of Leo and Vera.”
As someone who spent a lot of time with a grandparent, I can vouch for the importance of the relationship — and for the connections that enable family ties to bring meaning to everyday existence. In today’s fragmented world, such connections are not so common. 4000 Miles is a great reminder of the power of family.
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