'4000 Miles' opens at Shakespeare & Company

Gregory Boover and Annette Miller star in Shakespeare & Company's '4000 Miles,' which opens the company's 2017 season on Sunday.

LENOX — Vera, a 91-year-old woman, hears a knock on her West Village apartment door at 2 a.m. When she opens it, she finds her 21-year-old grandson standing there with his bike. And so begins a comedy-drama that connects two people 70 years apart.

"4000 Miles," a play about generational bonding, opens Shakespeare & Company's 2017 season on Sunday.

Playing the spirited Vera is Annette Miller, who is in her 20th season with Shakespeare & Company. In a recent joint telephone interview with the actress and the play's director, Nicole Ricciardi, Miller revealed that she was initially reluctant to play the role.

She said that a couple of years ago, she saw a production of the playwright's earlier play, "After the Revolution," at Williamstown Theatre Festival in which Vera was a character. That play takes place about 20 years before "4000 Miles" and Vera is fading.

"I really didn't want to play that woman," Miller said. "As I recall, she didn't have much to do. All she did was sit on a couch. I have no desire to play a passive older woman." More importantly, she added, she has no desire to perpetuate the myth that at a certain age people lose their value.

She has totally changed her mind.

"I'm so glad Amy (Herzog) realizes that you can be a vital person well into your 90s. One of the things I love about Vera is she always wants to learn. I don't think she is ever going to stop.

"In my career, I've played a lot of strong, powerful women who've left a mark on the world," she said, pointing to Golda Meir, Martha Mitchell, Maria Callas and Diana Vreeland as examples. "What's appealing about Vera is that the fabric of her life is about relationships. She's not a woman who led a revolution, but she knows she has something worth giving. Her contribution is giving to others. But she's not a pushover."

The playwright modeled Vera on her own grandmother, according to Ricciardi.

"Amy describes her as not being sweet," Ricciardi said. "She says, if the woman liked you she would engage and get into the ring with you."

Miller laughs and said Vera must like her grandson, Leo, who shows up out of the blue after biking across country because they get into the ring. "He's all New Age and she's a basic no-nonsense woman who has led an active, bohemian life. She was card-carrying before he was born. I expect she would have been at the Million Woman March on Washington no matter her age. To her, it's fine that he prefers a purified world and is particular about where the bananas he eats come from. But from Vera's point of view, sometimes a banana is only a banana. She says Vera's motto should be 'Just get on with it'."

Ricciardi describes the play as "character-driven." She said, "Something happened to Leo on his cross-country journey. It scares him. He thinks he's helping her by staying at the apartment fixing things and being useful. He has no idea how much he needs her wisdom and emotional support."

Miller adds, "And Vera has no idea that she's living in a state of depression She lives in the room where her husband died and has no idea she's losing part of herself. They both take a very warm and satisfying journey over the course of the play."

Ricciardi feels the play offers a different take about what constitutes a family. She points out that with Vera and Leo there is a special resonance going on beyond the obligation of being related. "They aren't actually blood relatives. She's a step-grandmother. They share family history and know all the players, but their connection is stronger than just blood. It goes deeper. They choose each other."

The underlying beauty of "4000 Miles," according to Miller, is "both characters make a journey to the future. I love that the last word in the play is `grow.'"