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Sometimes it’s the sheer audacity of an actor that draws you to a particular play. In Eric Coble’s new work The Velocity of Autumn, now playing at Arena Stage in what’s billed as a pre-Broadway run, you get a double dose of audacity in the work of Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella.
Parsons plays Alexandra, a 79-year-old, free-spirited widow. Spinella is her long-estranged youngest child, Chris, a similarly free-spirit in his late 40s. They are the only two characters in the play, and they’re onstage for its entire duration, 95 minutes with no intermission. And most of the time they’re in heated conversation, with much rapid-fire dialogue and the constant threat that at any second they might explode, literally. A combustible Alexandra has barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone in a sort of solitary confinement. She’s surrounded by homemade explosives that she’s prepared to ignite – lighter always at the ready – if her two unseen oldest children don’t stop threatening to ship her to a nursing home. Her one request is to spend her dying days at home, alone.
Velocity of Autumn: Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella
(Photo by Teresa Wood)
So much of Coble’s dialogue is realistic and relatable, and no doubt Alexandra will remind you of your mother or grandmother, or another strong-willed member of your extended family struggling with senescence. And Chris just might be a stand-in for you: a middle-aged gay man who fled the family coop a long time ago and has decided to try to rekindle ties before it’s too late.
At its best, The Velocity of Autumn will provoke many thoughts and questions about individual rights and family responsibilities, and the power struggles inherent in getting old and losing personal autonomy. But it’s better to keep those thoughts on a general or philosophical plane, or at least aimed squarely on your own personal situation, and not on the particulars of the play itself. The relative lack of realistic dramatic action in Coble’s play may leave you wanting. You may not know exactly how it’s going to end, for starters, but you just know Alexandra will not blow herself and her world to bits, the notion being pretty implausible. Coble could have more effectively heightened dramatic tension – as well as painted a fuller, richer, more complex family portrait – by writing parts for Alexandra’s other two children. After all, they may not “get” her the way Chris does, but unlike him they have stayed close to her through the years and have seen things that he hasn’t. The play would be stronger if the entire family had it out, with the two older kids explaining why they’re dead-set on putting mom in an old-folk’s home against her will, and Chris being allowed to fully realize his potential as family mediator. Instead, Chris only takes some of his siblings’ increasingly hostile phone calls while visiting mother, and the oldest kids don’t see what we see: that their lack of respect and understanding for Mom is at the heart of the problem.
Still, you’ll have plenty to think and talk about from Arena Stage’s production, from set designer Eugene Lee’s finely detailed set, as cluttered and lived-in as you’d expect, to the personality-fitting clothes Linda Cho designed for the characters: fiery but fashionable for Alexandra, muted and tentative for Chris. The key selling point, however, is the sharp, superb acting on display, and the way director Molly Smith has helped the actors bring the characters and their relationship to life. Working together, the award-winning veteran stage and screen actors Parsons and Spinella have natural chemistry and a perfect sense of timing. It’s easy to forget that they’re not really mother and son, or that they’re not really speaking off-the-cuff. They relive memories together and respond to each other as naturally and fearlessly as if they were the real deal.
Parsons and Spinella definitely “get” each other and their characters, which ultimately makes the getting good for the audience, too.