Perhaps you can judge a book by its cover, after all.
One need only walk into Aurora Theatre’s black-box studio to sense that something out of the ordinary might be in store with its current staging of “4000 Miles.” Frankly, given the compact dimensions of the space, I gave up long ago on expecting anything overly elaborate or inventive in terms of the set for any particular show. But I hereby admit being proved wrong about that by director Alexander Greenfield and scenic designer Jason Sherwood, who previously collaborated on the Alliance’s “The Whipping Man” and Serenbe’s “Ten Mile Lake.”
The audience files in through what resembles the narrow hallway of an apartment building. Half of the crowd is divided and seated along the far wall of the theater and half against the opposite wall, separated by black curtains on either side of the stage in between, which suddenly drop to reveal an elongated Manhattan abode — including a cozy den and kitchenette, with two small bedrooms on one end and a bathroom (replete with a functioning shower) on the other.
That initial surprise is enough to take your breath away, easily the most unique use of the space I’ve ever seen. As it happens, though, it’s also a sign of even greater things to come, because the real beauty of “4000 Miles” is how ingeniously and disarmingly it works similar wonders as a thoughtful and heartfelt play (by Amy Herzog), when, at least on paper, you could imagine or dismiss the premise as a suitable vehicle for, say, Betty White and Zac Efron.
In his exceedingly warm and touching Aurora production, Greenfield engenders supremely nuanced performances from Mary Lynn Owen as a headstrong, set-in-her-ways octogenarian and Barrett Doyle as her free-spirited, somewhat aimless young grandson. During a pit stop on his round-trip journey between Seattle and New York (by bike), he temporarily crashes — and periodically clashes — with her. They may not overcome all of their generational differences, but they gradually learn to appreciate them.
As evidenced, too, by her work earlier this season as the feisty matriarch of Theatrical Outfit’s “Dividing the Estate,” Owen has an uncanny knack for playing much older characters. With her stooped posture, shaking hands and measured movements, she fully inhabits this role, both in comedic bits about her dentures or hearing aid and in lovely moments addressing her faltering mental faculties or her regrets in life. (And just watch her wonderfully understated reaction to receiving a hug from him in an early scene.)
Doyle, so excellent in Aurora’s “Tigers Be Still” a few years ago, is equally industrious as the self-professed “hippie” who’s prone to spouting a lot of “New Age baloney.” The character rarely feels very deep, until later in the play, that is, when the actor delivers a lengthy speech about a fateful event on the road that’s haunting in its subtle clarity.
Subplots involving his ex-girlfriend and a prospective new one would seem extraneous, if the roles weren’t so keenly portrayed here by Kelly Criss and Shelli Delgado, respectively.
Even in its smallest details, Aurora’s “4000 Miles” goes the distance, with all the right moves.
Through March 1. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. $20-$30. Aurora Theatre, 128 E. Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222, www.auroratheatre.com.
Bottom line: Beautifully realized.