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Theater review: SLAC guides a pleasant journey of ‘4000 Miles’

“4000 Miles,” Salt Lake Acting Company, through May 4, Wednesday–Saturday, 7:30 p.m., $15–$42 with discounts available, or 801-363-7522

When Vera Joseph’s doorbell rings at 3 a.m., the 91-year-old at first doesn’t hear it. She doesn’t have her hearing aid in. After opening the door, she speaks unintelligibly, with her hand covering her mouth. She’s left her dentures on her bedside table.

But don’t confuse Vera with a stereotypical little old lady. Vera is feisty and resolute. She knows a thing or two about taking responsibility. And she’s more than willing to share it with her wayward 21-year-old grandson, Leo Joseph-Connell.

“The point is you help people,” she tells him. “It’s about the community. It’s not about 'I do what’s best for me and you do what’s best for you' ….”

Leo has arrived unexpectedly at Vera’s Greenwich Village apartment after biking across the country from Seattle. To begin his journey, he dipped the back tire of his 10 speed in the Pacific Ocean, and he now wants to complete the ritual and dip the front tire in the Atlantic.

Leo is estranged from just about everybody. He refuses to call his mother, who’s been worrying about him since the beginning of his trek. Leo and his mother are “at a juncture where more talking is not better than less talking,” he tells Vera.

As the title implies, the play is about distances. But the distances in “4000 Miles” are not geographical ones but personal ones.

Crossing distances to emotionally connect is just one of the underlying themes of this play, a Pulitzer Prize finalist that was named Time magazine’s best play of 2012 and was written by Amy Herzog.

Other themes reviewed are what does it mean to be a grown-up, what does it mean to be part of a family and how to approach the world with love and trust. People are imperfect, but they find a way to get along and are greatly rewarded in each of these relationships.

And the audience is rewarded as well at Salt Lake Acting Company’s excellent production, a regional premiere. As the poignant twists in Vera and Leo’s relationship progress, each of the playwright’s points is made subtly and effectively.

Director Adrianne Moore reveals her gift at working with actors. She keeps “4000 Miles” centered around the play’s emotional core. Though tinged with melancholy, the play is quite humorous, and Moore deftly balances the heartfelt moments amid the laughs.

Veteran actor Joyce Cohen inhabits the role of Vera. She brings great depth to the character, freely letting Vera's convictions, aging mind and humor feel engagingly natural.

Making his SLAC debut is Austin Grant as Leo. There’s a sense that Grant will grow as an actor, but he infrequently connects with his character in this production. Lily Hye Soo Dixon makes her date with Leo into a hilarious short scene, and there is tenderness in Shelby Andersen’s role as Leo’s resolute girlfriend, Bec.

Content advisory: Harsh, objectionable language at times, short discussion of sexuality and brief marijuana use.