Theatre Review: ‘The Velocity of Autumn’ at Arena Stage

Estelle Parsons as Alexandra and Stephen Spinella as Chris. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Estelle Parsons as Alexandra and Stephen Spinella as Chris. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Many of us have aging parents; some of us have even spent long periods of time with a parent during those final declining days.  Those of us who have known that the comedy of such situations is little and far between.  The beauty of Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn is that he catches that decline at a feisty high and then writes dialogue that literally glitters with gems of insight and humor.

The beauty of Arena Stage’s production of the play is both the adorable personality of Estelle Parsons as Alexandra and the marvelous chemistry between her and her co-star Stephen Spinella, the son who returns to make things right.  And then, of course, there is that tree.

Estelle Parsons as Alexandra. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Estelle Parsons as Alexandra. Photo by Teresa Wood.

The result is an hilariously touching comedy about—not coming to grips with dying (seen that and who needs it)—but about the human connection that can transform an “autumn” of continuous pain into a time of birds singing, slow memory-filled walks in the light, and (oh yes) that continuous pain.

The center of Autumn is most definitely Estelle Parsons and the effervescent personality of Alexandra.  Lively and cantankerous, she opens the play with her colorfully clothed body stretched out in an armchair fast asleep. Surrounding her are dozens upon dozens of Molotov Cocktails, ready to be lit at a moment’s notice.  As we watch her sleeping, a beautiful Dutch Elm glittering through the bay window upstage behind her, we see a hand reach for a branch, and then another hand, until finally a middle-aged man clumsily hoists himself up onto a strong branch and sits.  He silently speaks to someone on the ground below, pointing to the old woman all the while.  When he slowly lifts the unlocked window up, he accidentally knocks over a small object that tinkles, startling Alexandra awake.

With Molotov Cocktail in hand the play begins.

Stephen Spinella plays Chris, the prodigal son, who left home over two decades ago and has remained mum ever since.  His portrayal is as varied as it is subtle and heartfelt.  Chris returns because not only has he grown concerned about his own tenuous hold on life, but also his older brother and sister have grown concerned about their mother’s sanity.  As one might imagine, a roomful of Molotov Cocktails might set off a few alarm bells, if not send Homeland Security to storm the place.  His siblings’ powers of negotiation, however, are lacking, with the older son in particular being overly aggressive with his demands that his mother move out of her Brooklyn Brownstone and into an assisted living situation.

…an hilariously touching comedy…Arena’s commitment to new American drama is truly a godsent. 

And hence the larger conflict that is driving the play’s action.  Alexandria wants to live alone; in fact, solitude is her joy, a joy interrupted by motherhood and marriage.  The older son’s insistence that she move out of that home has escalated the current situation to the point of terrorism, with threats of blowing up the neighborhood.

The miracle of this production is that, despite the hyperbole of the action, the threats of destruction stay one-step removed from emotional authenticity, and the play remains rooted in an upper class realism, with the intricacies of the newly developing relationship between aging mother and floundering son taking focus.

Stephen Spinella as Chris and Estelle Parsons as Alexandra. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Stephen Spinella as Chris and Estelle Parsons as Alexandra. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena, directs The Velocity of Autumn, her 25th show since coming to the theatre 15 years ago.  She does so with a master’s hand, varying both pace and pitch with subtlety and verve.  Just when you think you know what might be coming next, or just when you think you have had enough of a particular behavioral rut between the two characters, the direction of the story shifts, with new discoveries and new levels of intimacy explored.

Beyond the superb two-person ensemble, Smith has pulled together an excellent production team, led by set designer Eugene Lee.  His one-room set, with his marvelous bay window framing his gorgeously lit elm, creates the perfect locale for this comedy of aging.  Rui Rita provides that light as well as the other variations in luminescence that help our reception of this delightful play stay nimble and acute.  Linda Cho’s costumes are just right as is the sound design provided by Darron L. West.

Arena’s commitment to new American drama is truly a godsent.  Although The Velocity of Autumn is not a world premiere—there are several just beyond the horizon—it does represent a contemporary America that most theatre-goers know only too well.  Alexandra might not be living in a senior center, as most of the elderly must, but she is confronting the question that all seniors confront: as the faculties and talents that make us who we are begin to disappear, and we watch our very identity slip away day by day, how might we find the courage to not just go on but to thrive.

Fortunately, for this senior she discovers before it’s too late that a home is more than a Brownstone, and solitude is not all that it might be chocked up to be.

Running Time: one hour and 25 minutes without an intermission.

The Velocity of Autumn plays at Arena Stage , the Mead Center for American Theatre, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington DC, through October 20. For Tickets click here.