Selected as a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, 4000 Miles explores the complex relationship between a grandmother and her grandson and how their individual journeys through grief and loss ultimately bring them closer together.
Playwright Amy Herzog crafted a compassionate, intimate – and often funny – play that examines the love of the family and the healing power of trust. Directed by Rhodie Jackson, 4000 Miles opens Friday at the Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre (www.abetttheatre.com).
This marks Jackson’s first time directing at ABET. She previously served as assistant director for ABET’s Merrily We Roll Along earlier this year and directed Three Murders and It’s Only Monday at Orange Park Community Theatre.
“I majored in Theatre in College. It’s always been a part of my life as far back as I can remember,” says Jackson. “I have done Community Theatre here in Jacksonville for over 10 years. I never thought about pursuing anything else.”
As a kid growing up in a musical family, Jackson says always knew she wanted to perform. She made her siblings come on the “Rhodie Show”. Her mother and uncles were singers but Jackson wanted to do more than sing. After her first taste of the limelight in the sixth-grade production of Annie, she knew she was hooked. “I discovered that I didn’t have become a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher,” says Jackson. “I could pretend to be one. Theatre offers you the chance to be anything you’ve ever wanted to be.”
Directing 4000 Miles gave Jackson unique insight into the relationship between actors and the director for the benefit of the audience. As an actor, your job is to learn your lines and blocking and to make sure your costume changes go smoothly. A director must look at the show as a whole, rather than how it pertains a specific character. Every decision affects the movement on stage and each movement has a direct impact on the audience experience.
“I think every actor should direct a show at least once. Sometimes as an actor, you have a hard time understanding what the director sees until the audience comes in and you think, ‘damn, the director was right’,” she says.
“As the director, you have to make sure your actors trust you. It all boils down to trust. Do I, as an actor, trust what the director is having me do, and do I, as the director, trust that my actors will do what I’ve directed them to do. Having just acted the last several years, I came into 4000 Miles with the fresh experience of being an actor and the knowledge of what’s it’s like as an actor taking direction. I tried to use that in the direction of my cast.”
4000 Miles begins when 21-year-old Leo appears at his grandmother’s door in the middle of the night after a traumatic cross-country bike ride. The intrusion shakes 91-year-old political activist Vera Joseph from her solitary existence. Leo assures her that he won’t stay long but unresolved issues involving an on-again, off-again romance, his mother’s constant meddling and the loss of his best friend and biking partner push him to seek comfort from his grandmother. In turn, Vera rediscovers the value of companionship since the loss of her husband.
“I hope the audience takes away the notion that forgiveness comes in many different forms. And that even when you think you can’t be forgiven, you can. I hope they enjoy the journey of the relationship and the bond that forms between Leo and Vera.”
When casting for the role of Vera, Jackson said she was mindful to avoid turning the part into a caricature of a grandmother. Vera is based on the playwright’s grandmother, Leepee, a passionate leftist who still lives independently in an apartment on West 10th Street. Despite her age, Jackson views Vera as a vibrant woman experiencing the natural progression of aging who still lives on her own, is mobile and looks out for her elderly neighbor.
Meganne McCawley Johnson plays the role of Vera. She has appeared locally at Christ Episcopal Church in two of Jason Woods’ original productions, Peter Pan and St. George and the Dragon. McCawley Johnson was last seen at ABET as the Mrs. Kornblum in Coney Island Christmas.
“I knew whoever I cast as Vera, I would have to make sure she portrays Vera as a real person rather than a character. I didn’t want the actress who was playing an old lady to make her the stereotypical “grandmother”,” says Jackson. “Meganne McCawley Johnson does a great job of playing Vera as a grandmother and I think Amy would be proud of how she is being portrayed.”
Michael Wills plays the role of 21-year-old Leo Joseph-Connell. Wills has previously appeared as Sir Lucas in Theatre Jacksonville’s production of Pride and Prejudice, Vinnie in Sam Shepard’s Simpatico, Officer Lockstock in Urinetown, and Henry-Harcourt Reily in The Cocktail Party. Most recently, he was seen in a number of roles, including Malcolm, in ABET’s production of Macbeth.
Alexis Boucugnani makes her ABET debut in the role of Bec. Boucugnani is receiving her AA in Theater at FSCJ this semester. Her recent appearances include Oklahoma! with Limelight Theatre, Neofuturists with the Red Titan Playhouse, and Peter Pan and Wendy with Athens Little Playhouse.
Kayla Le also makes her first appearance on the ABET stage as Amanda. Her recent credits include Parade and Becoming Memories.
“4000 Miles is a beautiful story about relationships and what happens when you need forgiveness or when you need to forgive someone,” says Jackson. “It takes you on a journey of what happens when you try to make some of your life choices right. I wanted to bring that vision to life.”