In a few ways, it's appropriate that New Mexico Actors Lab would present a play like 4,000 Miles. The brilliant script by Amy Herzog, nominated for a 2013 Pulitzer Prize, deals largely with the concept of ritual; why we do what we do, why rote actions become rote, why we keep saying what we keep saying.

NMAL has become familiar to audiences for reliable theater that challenges audiences via carefully curated scripts and hand-picked actors—practices almost ritualistic in and of themselves. The word "formulaic" has a negative connotation, but if I could use it positively here, I will: The formula NMAL has found is one that works, and one I don't fault the company using again and again. Good scripts plus good actors equals good productions. Nothing wrong with that.

In 4,000 Miles, Leo (the baby-faced Mickey Dolan) is a college-age grandson who appears on his Grandma Vera (Suzanne Lederer)'s doorstep in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, after bicycling 4,000 miles from Seattle to (maybe?) win back his girlfriend Bec (Robyn Rikoon). A lot has transpired since he left the Left Coast—most notably that Leo's best friend Micah, who began the cross-country journey with him, was killed tragically on a roadside in Kansas. Leo continued the bike trek without him, and now has a whole lot of mental anguish to sort through, which he perhaps isn't ready to face.

The script is thick and rich, but doesn't feel heavy. Despite its intense themes (which delve into Communist sympathies, the obsolescence of the elderly and incest), the story is somehow buoyant, held aloft by a cast deftly assembled by NMAL Co-Artistic Director and this production's director, Robert Benedetti.

Lederer is always a pleasure to watch (recent enjoyable turns with NMAL, include The Glass Menagerie and The Gin Game), and her Vera is defiant,
obnoxious and forcefully nurturing—yet ultimately fragile. She is constantly
using the words "progressive" and "lefty" to describe herself and her friends, and is a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. She smokes weed with Leo, praises him for carrying condoms, and reacts with surprising acceptance when she finds him making out with a girl on her couch (that girl being Amanda, played by Alyssa Bonanno, last seen as Juliet in Shakespeare in the Garden's Romeo and Juliet). Yet she still has undeniable pre-Boomer tendencies, like commenting on Bec's body, being set firmly in her ways even if they don't serve her, and reacting with unnerving anger when she senses herself becoming old ("It's getting harder for me to hold the key because my hand shakes, which is disgusting," she spits). She wants so badly to be viewed as "progressive," but needs to accept that her particular version of progress is simply different and more antiquated than her grandson's.

Speaking of her grandson, I enjoyed Dolan's performance; he's a natural actor and seems utterly comfortable onstage, especially notable when he's playing such a complex and, to be honest, uncomfortable character. (Leo is a problematic
person written in an enlightened way, and he's generally likable, yet it doesn't keep him from making your skin crawl here and there.) I had a hard time getting past just how young he looked; I'm unsure of Dolan's exact age, but he won the 17-and-under category for the New Mexico Actor's Showcase in 2017, so math says he's 19 at the absolute oldest. That tracks just fine with the character and Leo's weird limbo between almost-mature but still essentially childish.

Where it hit a snag, though, was in his relationship and chemistry with Rikoon. The actress, who by no means looks inappropriately old for her character, simply has a grace and poise that lends itself to an older human. Indeed, Bec says she's about five years older than the folks in her college classes, which would put her at about 23 years old; and if Bec is a graceful 23-year-old, you really gotta wonder what kept her and Leo together.

But then, that's some of the point. Bec is breaking up with him for a reason, some of which being immaturity and a lack of connection. While the audience can easily see that lack of connection, it wasn't quite possible to see the remnants of what brought them together in the first place. The two delivered enjoyable performances on their own, but their chemistry together was lacking. Speaking of skin-crawly, there were a few moments between them that just seemed too off-base to make sense.

Generally, however, the actors capably delivered one of the better scripts presented on Santa Fe's stages this year, and I urge NMAL to keep up the ritual of casting great stories well.

4,000 Miles
7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays Aug. 15-24; 2 pm Sundays Aug. 18 and 25. $25.
Teatro Paraguas
3205 Calle Marie, 424-1601; tickets here.