Nicola Cavendish and Nathan Barrett in the original Arts Club production of 4000 Miles. Photo by David Cooper.
Nicola Cavendish and Nathan Barrett in the original Arts Club production of 4000 Miles. Photo by David Cooper.

After a three year hiatus, 61-year old Nicola Cavendish returns to the stage in a triumphant performance as 91-year-old Vera Joseph in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of 4000 Miles. And while three years may not seem like a long time, in the world of theatre it can be an eternity, especially for female actors who unfortunately find roles diminishing as they age.

[pullquote]My standing ovation last night was just as much in recognition of Cavendish’s performance as it was a celebration of her return to the stage. Welcome home Nicola! We’re glad you didn’t stay away too long.[/pullquote]In Amy Herzog’s comedy, Vera’s grandson Leo appears at her doorstep in the middle of the night, having just travelled across the country on a quest to find himself.  Originally Intent on staying a single night, he ends up bunking down with her for three weeks.  Leo is a personification of the indifferent and selfish millennial, but as Herzog’s script slowly burns and the generations inevitably clash, Leo’s transformation is as marked as Vera’s.

Even as Herzog dips into the offbeat, with confessions of a forbidden kiss, infidelities and a grandmother/grandson moment on the couch that will have you simultaneously laughing out loud and rolling your eyes at its absurdity, both Cavendish and Nathan Barrett as Leo make it all very real.  There is chemistry between the two that helps sell their story and a relationship that grows over the 95 minutes; that connection is palpable.  And as the penultimate scene unfolds as Leo reveals what happened on the road, it is both incredibly touching and full of love.

Despite its underlying serious tones, at its heart Herzog’s tale is also very funny, and Cavendish proves that she is a fine comedic actor as well.  Physically channeling a sort of female version of the lovable reprobate Gru from the Despicable Me franchise, Cavendish’s shuffle is hilarious, but ultimately realistic.  Her moments of extreme clarify are offset by the onset of a mind that is no longer quite as sharp as it once was.

There are secondary characters that make appearances as well, but it is those that are unseen, perhaps ironically, that are the most believable. Ella Simon as Leo’s ex-girlfriend Bec and Agnes Tong as one-night stand Amanda are simply dwarfed by Cavendish and Barrett.  Both never quite reach the same level of believability and each time Herzog breaks away from the generational relationship, the world that Cavendish and Barrett have so skillfully created is broken.  Granted Simon and Tong have tough jobs as interlopers in a story that is ostensibly about Leo and Vera, but neither seems to be able to fully rise to that challenge.

Barbra Matis matches Herzog’s naturalistic style with a perfect old lady apartment.  Feeling as lived in as Vera herself, the cluttered Greenwich Village apartment is only missing the doilies.  Conor Moore adapts Luc Prairie’s original lighting design with beautiful shadows in the evening and a warm and tired glow the rest of the time; the scene between Vera and grandson on the couch late at night is some of the best lighting you’ll see on a stage.

Like Cavendish’s previous recurrent turn in the title role of Shirley Valentine, her role as Vera Joseph may very well be destined to be another signature piece as she turns her own corner from middle-age to the senior set.

My standing ovation last night was just as much in recognition of Cavendish’s performance as it was a celebration of her return to the stage. Welcome home Nicola! We’re glad you didn’t stay away too long.

4000 Miles by Amy Herzog.  Directed by Roy Surette.  An Arts Club Theatre Company presentation in association with Centaur Theatre.  On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St) through October 12.  Visit http;//artsclub.com for tickets and information.