Five years ago, Ben Schnickel left Lincoln Center deeply moved and a bit confused.
He had just seen the premiere of Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” a play about the relationship between drifter Leo Joseph-Connell and his fiery grandmother Vera. It was a play that would go on to be a Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist. And a play that he could not articulate what it was about.
When the Hampton Theatre Company announced it would stage the drama—which will open Thursday, January 12, at Quogue Community Hall,―Mr. Schnickel knew this was his chance for exploration and, ultimately, closure.
“Once I was cast, I was eager to sit down with the script and finally answer some of those questions I had about my initial experience,” he recalled. “I love its honesty. It’s a play that very much shows natural, everyday interactions between its two main characters in a way that doesn’t feel overtly theatrical. Sometimes theater is at its best when it shows how people are changed by the little things.”
The heart of the play revolves around 20-something Leo, portrayed by Mr. Schnickel, who arrives with his bicycle on the Greenwich Village doorstep of his 91-year-old grandmother, Vera, acted by Diana Marbury, after three months spent AWOL.
It is 3 a.m. He is unannounced. She is bewildered.
“It’s also slightly autobiographical,” explained director Sarah Hunnewell. “The actual playwright, in her youth, rode her bike across the country and ended up on her grandmother’s doorstep there. So there’s some element of truth—and the grandmother character is based on her own grandmother.
“And I think for Diana, who’s done a great amount of work with the company, this could end up being the best work she’s ever done,” she added. “It’s a very challenging part for her, and a really good, rich one—and it’s the largest role she’s had in quite a long time.”
Ms. Marbury, who joined HTC in 1986, said she always finds a piece of herself within every character she’s embodied over the last 30 years: “Every role contains a part of me at the core.”
But, admittedly, Vera is different, she said. And personal.
“The Vera role is close to my heart, as I had a beloved friend who passed this last April at 105, and she was very Vera—feisty, independent, intelligent and true,” Ms. Marbury said. “I think the difference in all the varied characters I’ve played generally comes out of the writing. I always depend on the writer to make it clear who I am supposed to be, and, of course, the director’s vision—how she, or he, interprets the playwright.”
As opposed to a physical comedy—which generally jumps to the stage almost straight out of the gate—“4000 Miles” rehearsals began with intense table readings in order to uncover the meaning behind every word and get to the root of each character, Ms. Hunnewell explained.
That they did. Leo, who is a self-professed hippie, “is adrift in life in a way that many 20-somethings are,” according to Mr. Schnickel. His life is carefree, his freedoms vast, his ties nonexistent.
And though he won’t admit it, he also is lost.
“Though everyone around him—his mother, his grandmother, his girlfriend—are trying to help him out, he resists them, defiant to make it through life his own way. I don’t judge him for that—we all do it,” Mr. Schnickel said. “I certainly relate to Leo in many ways. Though I have passed through my early 20s, I still have questions about where my life is taking me and what path I will ultimately choose. Don’t we all? And in his stubbornness to find his own way, he shuts out those around him. There have been a few moments in rehearsal when I’ve cringed, thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve done that before.’
“There’s also a stage direction that appears frequently throughout the play that directs Leo to grin,” he continued. “And I think that speaks volumes of who he is. It’s a great coincidence that both Leo, the character, and I, the actor, are from Minnesota. There’s a certain Midwestern quality that covers up any pain with a smile. It’s a reluctance—a fear, even—to address anything uncomfortable or challenging. So it’s intriguing to watch Leo struggle with expressing his feelings in ways I know I personally have throughout my life.”
The dynamic between Leo and Vera, a tough-talking New Yorker, carries the drama, he said, and their endless clashing is the source of all the humor in the play.
“And yet they butt heads often, they love each other so much,” he said. “I love how much they need each other yet refuse to admit it. It’s striking that they’re both adrift in life but in different ways. He’s the young, lost soul wandering through the beginning of his life alone, and she’s the elderly widowed woman navigating the end of her seemingly purposeless life alone. It’s fascinating to watch two people who are alone come together. And, in this play, it happens in ways both humorous and touching.”
Just as Leo and Vera come so far by the end of the play, so have Mr. Schnickel and Ms. Hunnewell. “When Ben started working on it and talking about it, he said, ‘What is this play about, anyway?’ And at first I said, ‘I don’t know—what is it about?’” Ms. Hunnewell recalled. “After working on it, we discovered what it’s about.”
It’s a coming-of-age story, which sounds so simple, Mr. Schnickel said. But it’s within that simplicity where the beauty lies, he said.
“We see two characters existing together in space and witness their interactions, though not much actually happens. That’s what made it hard to determine this play’s meaning,” he said, later adding, “It’s about letting people into your life. It’s the people who rile us the most who are also the people who love us the most. And though we may resist it, we need to listen to those around us and let them into our lives, let them affect us and help us grow.”
The Hampton Theatre Company will open “4000 Miles” on Thursday, January 12, at 7 p.m. at Quogue Community Hall. Performances will be held on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through January 29. An additional matinée will be offered Saturday, January 28, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $30, $25 for seniors (excluding Saturday evenings) and $10 for students under age 21. New this season, admission is only $15 for anyone under 35 with ID. For more information, call 631-653-8955, or visit hamptontheatre.org.