Rita Gardner Brings Life To Latest Studio Production At Rep: “4000 Miles”

Rita Gardner, as Grandma, scolds her grandson Leo- played by Dan McCabe in the Rep Studio production of "4000 Miles." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Rita Gardner, as Grandma, scolds her grandson Leo- played by Dan McCabe in the Rep Studio production of “4000 Miles.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

When the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis announced the cast for their current Studio Theatre production, I immediately e-mailed my friend to share the news. Rita Gardner, the original girl in the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt masterpiece, “The Fantasicks” was coming to town. I wore through my original LP and replaced it but now have the show on CD. It’s been my favorite musical since I first heard it in the early ’60’s.

I’m happy to report that Rita Gardner has not missed a step. Instead of the young girl, she’s playing a 91-year old grandmother, but she is brilliant as ever as she tosses off the wise-cracks and shuffles along with determination in the Amy Herzog play, “4000 Miles.” It centers on a self-centered young man who has biked from Seattle to New York and stops in to see a grandmother he has not seen in many years. Domestic “in”tranquility abounds as we find that Leo has estranged most of his family but seems- perhaps a bit unhealthily- attached to his adopted sister. He curses at and argues with his grandmother but the audience can feel a certain tension growing underneath his bravado. When the story of what happened to his best friend as they biked across the country together comes out, you feel some empathy for Leo- but not much.

Dan McCabe (as Leo) tries to calm down Lisa Helmi Johanson (Amanda) in "4000 Miles" at the Rep Studio. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Dan McCabe (as Leo) tries to calm down Lisa Helmi Johanson (Amanda) in “4000 Miles” at the Rep Studio. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

His old girlfriend- who grandma continues to call “the chubby one”- comes to visit but only to let him know that she’s no longer interested. Leo attempts to “drown his sorrows” by bringing home a young Chinese girl but she freaks when she finds out that his grandmother- and possibly Leo himself- is a Communist. When grandma’s next door neighbor suddenly dies, the bond between her and Leo seems to solidify. She doesn’t see much of the neighbor (she never appears on stage) but keeps in touch with her daily to make sure one or the other don’t have their “toes turn up.”

Dan McCabe is successful in portraying a pretty unsympathetic young man with a believability that makes us admire the actor if not his character. Katie McClellan is perfect for the role of Bec- the girlfriend who feels jilted. She expresses a wide range of emotions on the roller coaster life she’s had with Leo. Lisa Helmi Johanson is delightful as the ditzy Amanda. From her hooker-with-a-heart appearance to her wild and crazy stories, she provides the perfect absurdity at a point in Leo’s life when he’s trying to cope with all that’s happened in a such a short span of time.

The real star of the show, however, is Rita Gardner. Her sassy performance is superb. With perfect timing, she puts down Leo, tells amazing stories about her former husbands, and has just the right combination of cheeriness and grumpiness to make us fall in love with her again as we did in “The Fantasticks” all those years ago.

Dan McCabe and Katie McClellan spar during the Rep's Studio Theatre production of "4000 Miles." Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Dan McCabe and Katie McClellan spar during the Rep’s Studio Theatre production of “4000 Miles.” Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Jane Page has directed with a key to what’s important in this 90 minute look into these people’s lives. Although not a truly powerful script, it does bristle with life and has moments of true humor and intensity. Robert Mark Morgan has given us an earthy and appropriate set design that looks like it has been held in time for as long as grandma has lived there. John Wylie’s lights add the perfect touch, Jason Orlenko’s costumes are right on the mark and Rusty Wandall has given us sounds we’re likely to hear outside this little New York apartment.

Playing through February 3rd at the Studio of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, “4000 Miles” is worth a trip just to see the amazing performance from Ms. Gardner- but you might find the quirky little script to your liking as well. Give them a call at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

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