A wise and knowing "4000 MIles" at Shakespeare & Company

Gregory Boover as Leo and Annette Miller as Leo's grandmother, Vera, in Shakespeare & Company's production of Amy Herzog's "4000 Miles."

LENOX — Amy Herzog's knowing, wise play, "4000 Miles," begins on a note of disorientation.

A 21-year-old man named Leo is standing inside a West Village apartment — meticulously designed by John McDermott for Nicole Ricciardi's wise and knowing production at Shakespeare & Company — at 3 in the morning at the end of a coast-to-coast bicycle trip that began in Seattle.

Facing him is his 91-year-old grandmother, Vera, a card-carrying Communist lioness in winter whose growl and bite are not quite as sharp as they once were. As played by Annette Miller, the life force clearly stirs within Vera, even as the realities of age close in.

As played, exquisitely, by Gregory Boover, Leo is an immensely likable, decent, gentle, almost pure and innocent soul who, at the same time, is not inexperienced with life. He operates in the philosophical belief that "if you approach people with love and trust you can count on getting the same things back from them."

But the reality is that life has more than a few lessons of its own to teach Leo, especially when it comes to relationships. His relationship with his mother is tenuous. His relationship with his girlfriend, Rebecca, or Bec, as Leo calls her (luminously played by Emma Geer), who is on an academic internship in New York, is on even shakier ground. And his best friend, Micah, with whom Leo was traveling, was killed midway through their trip in a senseless, freakish accident on a highway in Kansas. Leo's closest bond is a developing one with his 15-year-old adopted sister, a Chinese orphan named Lily, at his family's home in St. Paul.

And so Leo settles in with Vera, not permanently but for a time; long enough to get his bearings; breathe; connect; share a joint or two with her as they watch a late-night movie on TV. Family, home, place, certainty are, at best, vague promises for a decent young man who is at an unsettled moment in his life.

In any other playwright's hands, this might well be the stuff of melodrama and soap opera. Herzog knows better than that and so do Ricciardi and her skillful cast. even when the emotional temperature rises, as it does, for example, in a compelling reckoning between Leo and Rebecca that shakes Leo's stability even further, the tone is tempered; at once measured and wrenching..

The production's gentle temperament extends even to Zo Laiz' smartly crafted Amanda, a go-for-broke eccentric young Chinese woman whom the horny Leo has brought to Vera's apartment in the hope of a one-night-stand, is crafted with an expansiveness that does not surrender character to caricature.

"4000 Miles" unfolds over the course of about a month during which time Leo and Vera come to know each other in ways that are neither cloying nor sentimental.

In a performance that, at this early point in the run, feels more concerned with externals, Miller's Vera is, despite her loneliness and isolation (her best friend, Ginny, lives across the hall but they communicate entirely by phone) alert and keen. She is survivor. She's outlived two husbands — the first, Arthur, a shameless philanderer; the other, Joe, with whom she shared political ideology and this apartment.

The relationship that develops between Vera and Leo is a subtly crafted exercise in patience, trust, acceptance, again without cloying sentiment or histrionics.

Near the end of the play, in a scene that is as resonant for what isn't said as it is for what is, Bec shows up again at Vera's and, in a compassionate gesture, reminds Leo of a ritual coast-to-coast bicyclists perform of dipping the rear wheel of their bike in the ocean as they begin their travels and the front wheel in the other ocean when they arrive. What neither Bec nor Leo realize at that moment is that Leo's real journey is only just beginning.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212