Of the many terrifying aspects of grief, perhaps the worst is its unpredictability.
Depending on its angle of approach, it can launch you into a harrowing period of self-destruction, depression or even violence. It can wash over you like a tide and then recede, leaving you waterlogged but alive. Or it can drop several tons of immobilizing weight on you, which cannot be displaced by anything short of Herculean effort.
Some mixture of these reactions to grief happens to the two central characters in Amy Herzog's masterful play "4,000 Miles," which opened Oct. 28 in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre in Getzville.
The Jewish Repertory Theatre's smart and sensitive production, directed by Saul Elkin and featuring fine performances from Ellen Horst and Nick Stevens, provides a kind of Cubist portrait of grief from several astute angles.
For the strong and stalwart Vera, pushing 90 and watching her friends fall away one by one, grief is an expected disappointment that is no less disappointing for being expected. For her considerably weaker grandson Leo, whose best friend was recently killed on a cross-country bike trip, grief is a personal injustice that gives him permission to unleash his most self-destructive impulses.
In Herzog's tightly constructed narrative, Vera and Leo meet somewhere in the middle as they spar and commiserate in Vera's small Manhattan apartment. They share stories about one another's lives, and especially their regrets, eventually coming to an understanding about each other and their slightly misplaced priorities.
Herzog, who has a keen understanding of the way insecurities manifest themselves in strange or ugly behavior, strikes an ideal balance between humor and pathos. Thought it can at times feel slightly analytical, its ultimate effect is one of deep humanity. It recalls another slightly analytical and deeply human masterwork on grief, Joan Didion's book "The Year of Magical Thinking."
Elkin's production, well attuned to the rhythms of the script and the idiosyncrasies of its cast, is even-keeled. It is smartly lit by Brian Cavanagh and features a contemporary sound design by Tom Makar that provides graceful transitions between Herzog's tightly written vignettes.
Horst's measured performance as the elderly Vera anchors the production and gives Stevens an alternately stubborn and hilarious foil to play off of. Stevens possesses an unmistakable intensity and affability, though his performance at points seemed somewhat too practiced.
As a pair of secondary characters designed to flesh out Leo's backstory and his wayward emotional state, the earnest Marissa Biondolillo and hammy Sara Kow-Falcone also turn in memorable performances from limited material.
Jewish Repertory turned a few heads in the Buffalo theater community this year by launching an all-Herzog season, with productions of "After the Revolution" and "The Great God Pan" planned for next year. Judging by its season opener, that decision looks like a smart move.
★★★½ (out of four)
Drama presented through Nov. 20 in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville. Tickets are $10 to $38. Call 688-4114 or visit jewishrepertorytheatre.com.