It’s possible that you’re not that familiar with the work of playwright Amy Herzog, up to and including her play 4000 Miles. And that’s fine. In fact, it just might work out for the best.
Of the many things the Station Theatre is known for, one of its greatest legacies is its love of new work. Over the course of its 42 years, the Station has put on a lot of plays that were straight from Broadway, fresh off the printing press, under the radar… You can choose your own euphemism for “not that well known.” The beauty of new plays, though, is that they often supply the greatest surprises and most genuine emotional moments. When you see something new, after all, how can you know what your reaction will be?
Herzog’s 4000 Miles, which opens this Thursday at the Station in Urbana, is one of those new plays. One of those good but not famous plays. In other words… you guessed it… it’s just the sort of thing that you expect from the Station. The theater’s website describes thusly:
This warm-hearted drama tells the story of 21-year-old Leo, who suffers a major loss while on a cross-country bike trip and seeks solace from his feisty 91-year-old grandmother, Vera, in her West Village apartment. Over the course of a single month, these unlikely roommates infuriate, bewilder, and ultimately reach each other. 4000 Miles offers a tender look at how two outsiders find their way in today’s world.
The play is directed by Sara Boland-Taylor, who, though making her Station debut, is certainly no neophyte. I spoke to Ms. Boland-Taylor about her past, her cast, and her show.
Smile Politely: I can remember what it was like to direct my first show at the Station. What did you know about the Station before you signed on to direct 4000 Miles? Have you found the place welcoming?
Sara Boland-Taylor: I’ve been at the University of Illinois in the Department of Theatre since 2010, so I’ve been to the Station several times to see shows, and many of my colleagues are part of the Station’s company. I’ve always been impressed by the high production quality that I see at the Station and was eager to get involved at some point in time. While working on a Ph.D. does not make directing a play an easy thing to accomplish, I gave myself permission to do something creative this summer. I am so glad I did. I have found the Station to be a welcoming place; everyone has been so kind and helpful. There is always someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. In that way, I feel like the Station really embodies what it means to be a “community” theatre.
SP: Since you are new to the Station, tell the readers a little about yourself. What is your theatre background?
Boland-Taylor: I grew up in the Dallas–Fort Worth area and received my B.A. in Theatre from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. I always enjoyed acting, but it was at SFA that I decided I wanted to direct and teach theatre at the undergraduate level.
After graduation I worked for Shakespeare Dallas, the city’s only dedicated Shakespeare festival, for several seasons. I worked my way up to becoming an Associate Director to the company’s Executive and Artistic Director, Raphael Parry, who continues to be a mentor to me.
I left Shakespeare Dallas in order to come to the University of Illinois where I received my master’s degree in 2010. Since then I have been working on my Ph.D. in the Department of Theatre, researching early seventeenth-century performances of pregnancy on public and private English stages. That being said, I have a passion for reading, teaching, and directing contemporary plays by women with strong voices, which is one of the reasons I find Amy Herzog’s work so appealing.
SP: This play is what I would personally consider a quintessential “Station show,” with its small cast, single set, modest scope. A “living room play,” in other words. How did you first encounter the play? What about it do you find compelling, as a director?
Boland-Taylor: I encountered 4000 Miles for the first time in 2011 when it was playing at the Duke on 42nd Street, before moving to the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. I was completely enchanted with the script’s deceptive simplicity as well as the deftness of Herzog’s writing. I was refreshed after seeing the play. It was almost like a palette cleanser after the flashy big budget shows I’d seen earlier that summer.
Each time I read the play I fall in love with it all over again. Herzog’s characters have such clear voices that beg to be brought to life. Leo, a young twenty-one year-old man, rides his bike across the country and ends up at his grandmother’s Greenwich Village apartment in the middle of the night. While initially wary of one another, it is clear that they are both desperately lonely; over the course of a month they become very dear friends.
As tight as the piece is with its four characters, ten scenes, and one set, it’s also a great challenge, for me as well as the actors. Trying to maintain the pacing of Herzog’s script while carefully establishing the various nuanced relationships in the play has been a great opportunity for all of us to become better storytellers.
SP: It’s not just you who’s new to the Station. One of your actors is also making his debut at the Station, and you have an actor on the far opposite end of that spectrum with Janice Rothbaum, who will turn 90 as the show wraps up. How has it affected your directing style to have such a wide range of experience on stage?
Boland-Taylor: I always want to be sure that I am respecting the experience and education that each of these talented people bring to the table, while also being sensitive to the fact they may not all have the same vocabulary. Janice Rothbaum (Vera), is a Station veteran with several decades of experience as an actor, social worker, and radio journalist. She has been an absolute joy in the rehearsal hall, and the wealth of experience she brings to the process has been invaluable. Although she is quite different from her character, one would think the part was written for her. She has a great intuition about Vera, and it is a delight to help shape her performance in a way that makes sense for this production. She was very familiar with the play from the first rehearsal and even admitted that she had been holding on to the script for a couple of years, hoping the Station would pick it up at some point.
[SP: For the record, there will be a profile on Janice Rothbaum (pictured above, rehearsing with Casey Thiel) next week on Smile Politely. She’s pretty fantastic, and we could talk about her all day. And now back to Ms. Boland-Taylor.]
Casey Thiel (Leo), who just received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Economics from the University of Illinois, has acting experience but no formal training. That being said, he is eager to learn and always open to the experience his fellow cast members bring to the rehearsal room. His previous experience is largely in classical theatre, musicals, and physical comedy, so we have worked a lot on relaxing into this contemporary, realistic piece. In that way, finding a vocabulary that makes sense for the both of us has been a great experience.
Our other two actors, Sally Hamer (Bec) and Wen Bu (Amanda), have been a delight to have in rehearsal. Sally is going into her senior year in the Studio Acting program at the U of I, so she has a lot of experience working with various instructors and directors, in many different styles of performance. Having gone through so much formal acting training, she has a wide range of skills from which she draws on a consistent basis. Wen is a former lawyer who has experience in musical theatre and choral performance. Needless to say, the skills required by both of these styles vary greatly from a realistic play. Nevertheless, Wen’s previous experience contributes to her continued specificity and precision in rehearsal while challenging me to adapt my directing style to someone who has little experience in this style of performance.
SP: You have a short run (only two weeks), so let’s wrap this up with a big neon enticement for prospective audience members. As a lover of theatre, why would you want to see this play?
Boland-Taylor: Dryly humorous and deeply moving, lovers of theatre will enjoy 4000 Miles most of all because it is a simple story about complex people. Herzog’s play tells the story of two progressives of different generations who are both meditating on the realities of aging and mortality. Coming in at about 100 minutes, audiences will relish getting to know these characters as the days of summer wane.
4000 Miles opens Thursday, July 31, and will run two weeks, closing Saturday, August 9. All shows begin at 8:00 p.m., and tickets are available through the Station website or by calling 217-384-4000.