BENNINGTON -- "The best American plays are about families," says Eric Peterson, producing artistic director at Bennington's Oldcastle Theatre and director of Oldcastle's new play "4000 Miles," which opens July 11 and will run through July 27.
"'Death of a Salesman,' ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,' Eugene O'Neill's great plays about the American Family, Sam Shepard's best plays -- each playwright has their version of family," he said. "And we all come from families, so we can all identify with family things."
Written by young playwright Amy Herzog and first staged Off-Broadway in 2011, "4000 Miles" tells the story of 21-year-old Leo Joseph-Connell, played by Andrew Krug, and 91-year-old grandmother Vera, played by Janis Young. After tragedy interrupts his cross-country bicycle trip, the show begins with Leo arriving unannounced at Vera's Manhattan apartment in the middle of the night. This charged moment introduces the play's core relationship between Leo and Vera, while raising as many questions as it answers.
"In every good play, there are mysteries," Peterson said. "Why does he do this? Why does he go to his grandmother? I think that's something that both we and the audience will discover through the play. His grandmother is obviously safe, but she's a really prickly person."
"The grandson and the grandmother love each other, but they don't always get along," Peterson said. "They rub each other the wrong way. She doesn't always believe him.
This relatable aspect is key to the show, and Peterson said Herzog's conversational, plain-spoken dialogue makes the characters feel natural, whether audiences associate with Vera, the show's younger characters, or both.
Hannah Heller plays Bec, Leo's longtime on-and-off girlfriend, who originally planned to accompany him on the bike trip, and Julie Chen plays Amanda, a young woman that Leo takes home to Vera's apartment after a night out in New York. The cast list alone sets the drama in motion.
Making his Oldcastle debut as Leo, Andrew Krug said he has enjoyed exploring his character.
"(Leo) has a lot of ideals that he clings very tightly to, and then lives by very few of them," Krug explained. "He's still learning a lot about being an adult, what that means, and where it's going to take him."
Janis Young is facing interesting challenges as Vera, Peterson said, as she will play a woman much older than she is.
She has "the challenge of trying to help her get the age right, while not just playing age," he said. "This woman is 91 and she's not as strong as she used to be, but she still gets around and she goes out -- and going out in Manhattan is a challenge on its own.
Herzog's characters are deep and interesting, he said, capturing the intergenerational dynamic between Leo and Vera without leaning on age stereotypes and cliches.
"I don't have patience anymore for plays that are about sweet, wonderful people," Peterson said. "Everybody has edges. I want to see the edges."
Unusually for an Oldcastle cast, most of the actors in "4000 Miles" will perform at Oldcastle for the first time. Only Janis Young returns from previous appearances, including "Song for My Father" in 2010 and "Bedroom Farce" in 2008.
The tangle of relationships that ensnares Leo upon his arrival in New York complicates his background story in a realistic, honest way, and Peterson said it presents an interesting set of challenges for the cast.
"In rehearsal we're spending a lot of time talking about the backstories," he said, "and talking about seemingly simple things -- like when was the last time Leo and his grandmother saw each other? What precipitated the on-and-off nature of Leo's relationship with Bec, and what happened the last time they saw each other?"
Like "Doubt," Oldcastle's last production, Peterson said "4000 Miles" leaves parts of the story open for interpretation, based on each audience's member's experiences and the way they relate to the characters.
"I'm convinced that as people walk out of the theater," Peterson said, "if you see it with somebody, you'll have your version of why he went to see his grandmother, and the other person with have their own version.
"That real aspect of it is so interesting to me. It's when fiction can be more real than real life."