A 21-year-old idealist named Leo embarks on a cross-country bicycle trip and arrives at the Manhattan apartment of his grandmother, Vera, age 91.
He's lost things along the way, which has left him in a state of shock. Vera, too, meanwhile, has her share of grief, having outlived two husbands and most of her friends.
With its balance of warmth, drama and comedy, producer Mason Wagner thought Amy Herzog's "4000 Miles" would be a season-closing play for BetweenTheLines, a bootstrap independent company housed at the nonprofit Roxy Theater.
The troupe opened its second season in the fall with two comparatively dark plays by national writers, "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" and "Gruesome Playground Injuries," followed by "In the Snow," an original experimental script by local playwright Kate Morris.
Director Nathan Snow described "4000 Miles" as a comedic "character drama with some of these bigger concepts in orbit," such as identity politics, aging, grief and family.
He said Herzog's script doesn't present all of this through Leo's point of view, and Vera's is given equal weight. "There are multiple avenues in," he said.
The unlikely housemates, both coping with losses, make for a comedic odd couple of cross-generational hippies.
Snow said, "Leo's worldview is super black-and-white in a young, idealist, semester-at-Evergreen" way. Vera, meanwhile, was a member of a different counterculture generation of Marxists.
Snow and Wagner, both relatively recent graduates, worked on a scene from the play together when they were studying for their acting BFAs at the University of Montana.
Wagner, who's toured with the Montana Repertory Theatre, is playing Leo. It's his first time acting since fall of 2016, when he and some collaborators staged Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker's "The Aliens," the second-ever show by BetweenTheLines. He founded the company as a way to bring contemporary plays to Missoula, as both a creative outlet for actors like himself and for audiences, both of whom rarely get to see works like these.
He said Herzog's writing "lets the actor live on stage, and just have coffee and have these nice conversations" in a fashion that feels like a "slice of life," but self-aware. He thinks Herzog's humorous look at progressive idealism might feel like she's "holding up a mirror" in a town like Missoula.
Accordingly, Herzog is a younger voice and "4000 Miles" is a new work. After premiering in 2011, it was named best new American play at the 2012 Obie Awards, started by the Village Voice in 1955. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama as well.
Vera is portrayed by Ann Peacock. While only 56, she had the right tenacity for the character, Snow said.
Peacock said Vera "gives you the opportunity to be someone who basically tells you what she thinks." Peacock has a relative who's only a few years younger than Vera, and so she's seen how people become isolated by loss of friends and loved ones as they get older.
She also has a background in dance that has helped "subtract" movement for the character.
To prepare for the role, she's studied how senior citizens move in order to keep from "overplaying" it. To her, the difference is that her character should have difficulties moving, but must appear to be adjust and compensating for it. She worked with a body-alignment expert to find authentic-looking movements.
Snow said there are jokes about Vera's fading memory and loss of hearing that Herzog subtly turns.
"Some of these bits that start as bits earlier on become a little more serious when you realize how deeply they're affecting her," he said. Wagner said "it's almost like the laugh is the way into that, and then you reconsider."
After making a number of calls around town, Peacock found a stylist willing to dye her hair gray — some declined, worried that they'd ruin her hair. She said in the small theater spaces at the Roxy, the audience is so close to the stage that a wig would appear too obvious.
Hannah Dahl plays Amanda, a Chinese-American girl whose own background gives her insight into real-world politics into the multi-generational Marxists' discussions. Natalia Boise plays an ex-girlfriend who's in college.
"4000 Miles" closes out BetweenTheLine's second season, one that Wagner feels was a success. Everyone in the company has to do a little bit of everything to make it work, from costuming to helping find sponsors. They carefully select scripts that focus on story and acting, that they can present with creative but minimal sets on a single stage in the Roxy Theater. Like most of their productions, Mike Fink designed the apartment-set for "4000 Miles."
"In the Snow," with its themes of rural poverty, the strain of social work and judgments on people in the social welfare presented through an experimental narrative, brought in strong and enthusiastic audiences.
"What we're finding is, the greater the risk, the greater the return," Wagner said. They're already planning on presenting another original script next season.