by Emily Dodi

It’s the middle of the night and someone’s at the door of an apartment in Greenwich Village. Vera, 91 years old, finds her 21-year-old grandson Leo on her doorstep with little else than the clothes on his back and his bicycle. He has shown up unannounced, having just biked 4,000 miles cross-country. After not seeing each other in years, they have a lot of catching up to do. But first, Vera has to put in her teeth.

It’s with this kind of unexpected, perfectly timed humor that Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles comes to life under the direction of Larry Swerdlove at Santa Paula Theater Center. The play was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. That’s quite a pedigree to live up to, and the cast and crew do a smashing job of making it their own.

Marilyn Lazik and Parker Harris star as Vera and Leo. The actors have an easy rapport, even at the start, when their characters are more like strangers than family. Actually, Vera isn’t Leo’s real grandmother, but they share much in common, such as their leftist leanings and closely guarded independence.

At first, Leo is all youthful defiance as he tries to hide the guilt and grief he feels about his friend’s tragic death during the bike trip. No one in Leo’s life — including his mother back home, adopted sister (whom we see briefly on a computer screen) and ex-girlfriend Bec — seems to understand him anymore. Leo doesn’t much understand himself either. When he finally confides in Vera about what happened on that fateful day, it is the most powerful scene in the play. But as is characteristic of Herzog’s exquisitely human story, the scene is punctuated by a funny moment that lifts the mood without breaking it.

Lazik hits every note, from Vera’s humor, anger and fear of “losing her words” to her adorable gait. Harris captures Leo’s millennial angst while bringing his deeper emotions slowly to light. As Bec, Erin Hollander evokes all the hurt and frustration of someone watching her lover slip away. Amanda, the woman Leo brings home one night, is played with great physical humor and comic timing by Susan Lucas.

With Swerdlove at the helm, the actors are so in sync that you almost forget you’re in a theater. You half expect Vera to offer you a cup of coffee. Mike Carnahan’s set captures the look of a New York apartment caught in time, complete with a rotary phone on the wall. Barbara Pedziwiatr’s costumes are spot on. (Vera’s loud bathrobe is a highlight.) Gary Richardson’s lighting is nuanced, as when he dims the stage when the truth comes to light. Producer Leslie Nichols, composer David Swerdlove, prop mistress Gail Heck, stage manager Megan Brister and rehearsal stage manager Leticia Mattson round out the talented crew.

In the end, Leo and Vera are not without their scars as they face the future. But at least they go with the knowledge that someone understands them and loves them anyway.

4000 Miles plays through May 22 at Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. Seventh St., Santa Paula. For more information, call 525-4645 or visit www.santapaulatheatercenter.org.