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Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)   
4000 Miles

Written by Amy Herzog  
Directed by Kimberly Senior 
at Northlight Theatre, Skokie (map)
thru Oct 20  |  tickets: $25-$75   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
   Read review



A journey worth taking


Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)


Northlight Theatre presents


4000 Miles

Review by John Olson

Leo Joseph-Connell (Josh Salt) is a leftist young man in his early twenties who’s just completed a cross-country bicycle trip from Seattle to New York and has landed at the West Village apartment of his 91-year-old grandmother Vera (Mary Ann Thebus). If this seems an improbable place for a guy his age to crash, it’s because the girlfriend he expected to stay with has turned him away. It’s either his grandma’s place or camping out in Manhattan, which Gram understandably advises against. Leo’s bicycle odyssey across America was eventful – his traveling companion died unexpectedly halfway through it – but it’s the emotional journey Leo makes in his three-week stay with Vera that 4,000 Miles is about. Leo and Vera are able to connect partly because they share many of the same values. Vera was a Communist back in the ‘30s when it was a

Caroline Neff and Josh Salt in 4000 Miles, Northlight Theatre
fashionable, youthful thing to do and the family, based on author Amy Herzog’s own, has a long tradition of liberal politics. And, Vera is also able to provide grandparental support to Leo without all the control and judgment that is more common between parents and their kids.

The bulk of the play consists of scenes between Vera and Leo, both characters extremely well drawn by Herzog. As Vera, Mary Ann Thebus is always a delight to watch. Speaking with a Ruth Gordon-esque voice, Thebus captures the movement and mannerisms of a person of Vera’s age who still has all her faculties, but whose body and brain don’t always respond as quickly as they used to. There’s the searching for words, the hearing that goes in and out, and the blend of tolerance and impatience that seems to come with having lived that long. Thebus completely inhabits the wonderful character Herzog wrote based on her grandmother. Vera – a widow for the past 10 years – is independent, mostly solitary, alert, intelligent and not to be pitied. Leo soon finds he enjoys being with her and finds her an ally of sorts in the conflict with his parents that we hear the two speak about.

As Leo, Salt has perhaps the tougher job of the two leads. Herzog’s created a rich character here as well, but she reveals who he is so gradually that he remains mysterious through much of the play. While populist in his thinking, certainly anti-corporatist at least, he disdains cities and crowds in general, feeling more comfortable in the great outdoors He’d probably attend a “99 percent” demonstration if they held one in some remote rural area where there wouldn’t be crowds. He’s on the outs with his girlfriend and parents, but strangely close to his adopted sister. Just as in Herzog’s play Belleville, produced this past summer at Steppenwolf, Herzog’s male lead is revealed to us only gradually; he’s complicated, where the women in the play are not. Salt navigates the treacherous waters of this character skillfully, encompassing Leo’s sense of humor, occasional short temper, self-centeredness and difficulty in connecting. On the surface, Salt’s Leo feels very much like a real young man of his age, and Salt has a great chemistry with Thebus. Herzog still leaves a lot unanswered about Leo, though, and defines him more by what he isn’t than what he is. (It feels like Herzog may have modeled Leo after someone she knows but doesn’t quite understand.)

Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)
Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)

Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)
Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)

This comedy-drama is long on the comedy, with much of it coming from the supposed improbability of a woman Vera’s age willingness to talk about sex with Leo and even share a marijuana joint with him. These sorts of situations can sometimes be used for easy laughs, but Herzog grounds them in such a fully realized character that they don’t feel this way. Plus, there’s more to Vera’s character than her free-spirited nature. There’s insightful humor in her toughness and insight and even in her impatience with her unseen neighbor across the hall. There’s also a funny scene with Leo and the young Chinese-American woman (the marvelous Emjoy Gavino) he brings back to the apartment after meeting in a bar.

The more dramatic subtext of Leo’s situation isn’t as well handled by Herzog. We see his breakup with girlfriend Bec (a sadly earnest Caroline Neff), but don’t get enough information to get a sense of their relationship. Bec finds Leo too self-centered and directionless, apparently, and Herzog seems to be telling us Leo is the one who most needs to grow up, but she doesn’t fully make her case. Also, once the circumstances of Leo’s friend’s death are revealed, Herzog over-writes the story. It would be a spoiler to explain exactly why but she unnecessarily adds a socio-political context to it that is based on some details that would be completely improbable in real life, and this detracts from the play at a key moment in its arc.

Even so, 4000 Miles is an enjoyable journey, thanks to the warm, human characters that director Kimberly Senior and actors Thebus and Salt have brought to life. Vera and Leo are people we like spending time with, and this smart performance by Ms. Thebus already promises to be one of the best of the new season.


Rating: ★★★



4000 Miles continues through October 20th at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. (map), with performances Wednesdays at 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2:30pm and 8pm, Sundays 2:30pm and 7pm.  Tickets are $25-$75, and are available by phone (847-673-6300) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at  (Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, NO intermission)

Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Mary Ann Thebus (Vera Joseph) Josh Salt (Leo Joseph-Connell), Caroline Neff (Bec), Emjoy Gavino (Amanda).

behind the scenes

Kimberly Senior (director), Jack Magaw (scenic design), Christine A. Binder (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (sound design, original music), Rita Vreeland (production stage manager), Rachel Laritz (costume design), Dr. Kristin Leahey (dramaturg), Michael Brosilow (photos)

Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)
Review: 4000 Miles (Northlight Theatre)


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