Helen Manfull, James McCready re-enact relations between younger, older generations

James McCready, as Leo, and Helen Manfull, as Vera, both say that they could relate to their characters in Fuse Productions’ “4,000 Miles.”
James McCready, as Leo, and Helen Manfull, as Vera, both say that they could relate to their characters in Fuse Productions’ “4,000 Miles.” Photo provided

The 2012 Obie Award-winning show by Fuse Productions, “4,000 Miles,” represents two of the largest demographics in State College: senior citizens and college students.

Written by Amy Herzog and directed by Richard Biever, the moving comedy stars Helen Manfull, as Vera, and James McCready, as Leo. Supporting them are Ashley Moore, as Bec, and Aiko Dzikowski, as Amanda. “4,000 Miles” looks at how two outsiders — an elderly woman running out of time and a young man with his whole life ahead of him — find common ground in today’s world.

“The play’s title refers to the distance biked by the character Leo across the country to pay a surprise visit to his grandmother, Vera,” Biever said. “Through the course of the play, we discover that Leo has suffered a tragedy and he is coming to his grandmother to seek comfort. Much of the play is about how these two very different generations learn about and grow to fully respect each other.”

In September 2013, Biever selected “4,000 Miles” as part of Fuse Productions’ monthly Contemporary Play Reading Series at the State Theatre. Manfull, at 81, said she fell in love with the character of Vera and thinks she is as close to her as any role she has ever played.

“Vera is feisty, outspoken, sometimes a little passive-aggressive, liberal and strong-willed,” she said. “But at 91, she is beginning to lose it, words fail her, and she gets things wrong and mixed up. She gets confused and has trouble putting her words together. This is where I identify so strongly.”

Vera lives in an apartment in New York City that she shared with her late husband. She is lonely but she doesn’t know it until her grandson arrives on his bike at 3 in the morning. The story is how these two people come to understand and help one another. At first they are 4,000 miles apart, but at the end, they are both stronger and richer for the short time they have spent together.

“So here is this old woman who suddenly finds her life dramatically changed,” Manfull said. “In the end, she says, ‘I’ll be alright; I’ve always been alright.’ And we know she will be for whatever small amount of time she has left.”

A big part of the success of the 2013 reading was due to Manfull in the role of Vera. Manfull, a theater professor for 40 years, has acted and directed around the world. After three decades of teaching, Manfull retired in 1996 from Penn State as a professor emerita.

“I loved teaching, especially Theatre 100, which I created with a small acting company that performed famous scenes for the class,” she said.

“Just as I am old and slow, James is young, vibrant, and very bright,” Manfull said. “I am amazed at how fast he has learned his lines. Right now he is being very kind, tolerant, and patient with me.”

In many ways, Helen’s Vera reminds McCready of his own grandmother, who passed away several years ago. It has been an interesting internal experience for him — sort of like getting to spend some extra time with his grandma.

“Helen is just wonderful, and both she and Vera are extremely hilarious and witty,” he said. “I like to think we have good chemistry because we both come at our characters from a pretty personal angle. ... In a lot of ways, I feel for Leo, who is just a young kid trying to figure out how to be a person.”

Manfull said years of teaching young people helped make the role much easier for her to play.

“The best way for an older person to deal with a younger one is to be honest, and Vera is certainly honest with Leo, sometimes painfully so, yet she has her blind spots where he is concerned,” she said.

The play unravels in a way that makes it seem like a mystery, and there are a lot of things that the audience doesn’t know in the beginning.

“Little hints get dropped here and there, so the audience will want to know what’s going to happen or, rather what has happened to Leo and why he is this way,” McCready said. “I hope the audience comes away with the idea of growth and change for all ages — that there are different ways of being stuck and that all we need is a little push sometimes.”