Odometer Reading: By far the best thing about 4000 Miles is its venerable star, Rita Gardner

Dan McCabe and Lisa Helmi Johanson in the Rep's 4000 Miles.
Dan McCabe and Lisa Helmi Johanson in the Rep's 4000 Miles.

You wonder how these things begin. This begins with a woman, old and diminutive, hiding away in shadows from the tyranny of time. It is September, a perfect time to be in love. So it is that in 4000 Miles, the current offering in the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Studio series, when 91-year-old Vera Joseph's headstrong grandson arrives in Manhattan fresh and dirty after having cycled a circuitous cross-country route from Seattle (by way of Kansas), his impromptu visit stirs familial feelings that have long been as dormant as the dust that permeates Vera's musty rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment.

4000 Miles began with author Amy Herzog's attempt to preserve her own grandmother as a character in a play. Herzog succeeded admirably, and 4000 Miles was enthusiastically received last year when it was staged at Lincoln Center. Vera is indeed delicious company. A crusty and cantankerous former peace activist, she is an anachronism left over from those passionate days when Americans took to the streets to make their feelings heard. Because she is so closely drawn from reality, everything Vera says and does resounds with authenticity.

In what has to be the casting coup of the season, Vera is being brought to poignant life by Rita Gardner. Anyone who has ever listened to the original cast recording of the world's longest-running musical, the fabled 1960 off-Broadway charmer The Fanstasticks, knows Gardner as Luisa, the wildly innocent Girl. Three generations of young idealists have spent rapturous hours listening to Gardner sing about wanting "much more than keeping house." To that extent, Luisa and Vera are sisters under the skin. On vinyl and CD, Gardner's lilting voice remains eternally young. But in the weeks leading up to the opening night of the Rep's 4000 Miles, one had the right to wonder if, more than a half-century later, the aging Gardner could still cut it as an actor.

All that worry was time wasted. Her portrayal is a marvel. Watching Gardner onstage is like watching colored gems tumble and spill in a kaleidoscope. This is a glorious creation of constant surprise and variety. Her eyes spin like pinwheels, her extended fingers point with the intensity of arthritic laser beams, her stooped body traipses about the apartment in tiny tiptoe steps that might be modeled after the Old Actor in The Fantasticks. As Vera tries to remember lost moments from her storied past, everything Gardner does feels natural and spontaneous. She makes 4000 Miles an evening to cherish.

Yet perhaps it should be noted that 4000 Miles is not so much a full-grown play as it is a minimalist mood piece. During its 80-plus minutes, the slender story grows less involving rather than more, perhaps because events of consequence only tend to happen to offstage characters, a device that does not require much investment from the viewer. Then too, the scenes that do not include Vera have a completely different feel. To be blunt, they're not as interestingly written. Vera's return is always welcome.

At evening's end, Vera and her eco-friendly grandson Leo (Dan McCabe) remain essentially unchanged; there's no real growth from either of them. Have we missed something here? Or is it a truism that more and more, contemporary plays are saying less and less? 4000 Miles, which was directed by Jane Page with her usual expertise, is proficient in every regard. The musty Greenwich Village set (designed by Robert Mark Morgan) feels lived in, right down to the untouched bowl of butterscotch drops on an end table. But despite the fact that Vera is a veritable life force well worth meeting, the evening's lasting resonance is provided by the luminous Gardner. She personifies reassurance that theater remains a sanctuary in which gifted young actors can ripen and mature and continue to captivate viewers of all ages.