When Amy Herzog graduated with a master’s in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama in 2007, she had a simple objective. “I wanted to be able to make a living from writing. That was the sole goal; the rest of it was unexpected.”
“The rest of it,” as she quietly puts it, includes four plays produced, Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk award nominations, critical acclaim and a 2013 Pulitzer Prize nomination for Drama for her 2011 play, 4000 Miles, which opens at the Philadelphia Theatre Company on Oct. 11.
The play tells the story of Leo, a recent college graduate who unexpectedly shows up on the doorstep of his nonagenarian grandmother Vera’s West Village apartment,
The 34-year-old New Yorker acknowledges that she finds the success of 4000 Miles to be “staggering. I didn’t have high hopes for it. I didn’t think it would be commercial at all because it’s not plot-driven. I thought people would find it a little quiet and boring.”
Considering the double digit number of productions of the play this year, people are finding this spare two-hander to be anything but.
One reason Herzog thinks the play has struck a chord is because it’s an intergenerational story featuring a grandparent who isn’t simply a vessel for homilies and understanding. “There aren’t a whole lot of stories about a grandparent and a grandchild out there, and the ones that are tend to be a little sentimental,” she offers. “I tried to write about two people who are themselves unsentimental.” Leo’s fragile state, brought on by his entry into the real world and a traumatic event that occurred during his journey, collides with his no-nonsense grandmother’s existential crisis of the inevitable effects of aging.
The naturalistic, unhurried pacing and dialogue are hallmarks of Herzog’s ability to recast events from her own life in an intimate, minimally staged fashion. 4000 Miles is based on her own stay with her maternal grandmother, Leepee Joseph, after completing a post-college, cross-country bike ride. The playwright says the tension and emotions present in the play represent the experience she had with her grandmother, and that the experience was so difficult for both of them that it took years for them to make up and completely heal from it .
One of the roots of that conflict stemmed from Joseph’s disappointment that Herzog didn’t carry on the family tradition of left-wing activism. Throughout her life, Joseph was a dedicated member of the Communist Party USA who continued to be active in social justice causes well into her 90s.
Like many far-left Jews of that time, Joseph’s commitment to communism was in inverse proportion to her religious beliefs. “My family was fervently anti-religious,” Herzog recalls. “My grandmother took huge pride in her Jewish heritage and identified culturally as a Jew, but she saw any kind of religiosity as weakness, so I grew up with that strange contradiction of pride and contempt for God-fearing people.”
Ultimately, Joseph did pass on her activist gene to Herzog. By channeling her grandmother into the character of Vera in both 4000 Miles and its predecessor, After the Revolution, Herzog has brought her ideals and beliefs to a whole new audience.
IF YOU GO
Opening Oct. 11
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia
Playwright Amy Herzog will take part in a post-performance interview on Nov. 10.