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Traveling the distance for family

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Entertainment,Barbara Mackay

Some playwrights make a name for themselves through their extravagant settings. Some do it by inventing outrageous characters. Amy Herzog does it rather like a stealth missile, letting her characters reveal themselves obliquely and quietly, through their conversations.

Under the skilled direction of Joy Zinoman, Herzog's "4000 Miles" at Studio Theatre is a gem of a play in which Herzog examines two totally different characters and finds great similarities between them. Plot is of minimal importance. Character is everything.

Twenty-one-year-old Leo (Grant Harrison) arrives at the West Village door of his grandmother, Vera (Tana Hicken), at 3 a.m., his bicycle in tow.

He has been on a cross-country tour, and in the process, his best friend has died in a freak accident on the road. Vera takes Leo in for what is supposed to be an overnight stay but which turns out to be a much longer visit, in which grandmother and grandson really get to know one another.

If you go
'4000 Miles'
» Where: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW
» When: Through April 28
» Info: $39 to $82; 202-332-3300; studiotheatre.org

Without a college degree or a job, Leo's life seems aimless. At one point, he refers to himself as a "hippie." But it's really Vera who is the hippie. She and her husband were Marxists, then social protesters. But her husband died years earlier, and now Vera is alone.

Harrison is taking as the relaxed Leo, whose mop of curly hair underscores the fact that he is more comfortable camping out than looking civilized. For the most part, he is gentle with his grandmother and understanding of the fact that she is getting old and forgetful.

But the play really belongs to Hicken, who plays Vera as a fearless woman who is far more lucid than distracted. In their more intimate moments, when Leo tries to explain his life to Vera, it is clear that she is the sounding board that his own mother, with her expectations and criticisms, never could be. Hicken has a down-home kind of humor that brings out the sparkle in Herzog's dialogue.

There are two other characters in "4000 Miles." The first is Leo's girlfriend, Bec (portrayed well by Heather Haney), who is beginning to want more than her relationship with Leo. The fourth character is a young woman Leo picks up, Amanda (Annie Chang). Chang is delightful as the bubble-headed Amanda, whose sparkly hot-pink blouse matches her platform spike heels and who has a bright blue stripe running through her hair.

Russell Metheny's set shows a comfortable living room, its walls lined with books. It is the perfect place for Leo and Vera to move from being nearly strangers to being close relatives and to explore the fact that they have important stories to tell each other.

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