In The Velocity of Autumn, 79 year old Alexandra (played by 86 year old Estelle Parsons) has lost her taste for life. Starting with her food. It has gone gray in her mouth. She can’t hold a brush or a pencil so her artwork has stopped. But she can still hold her father’s Zippo. If she were a Museum she would be an eternal Guggenheim, where the pieces of art are in your present, your future and our past. Like life.
On the day we meet her Alexandra is being visited by her son Chris (Stephen Spinella) who has been summoned by her other two children Jen and Michael who re waiting outside on the street and who think that Ol’ Mom is cracking up. As a matter of fact Alexandra thinks that too. But talking to her other two children is excruciating. Michael and Jen think and talk in straight lines. Chris, on the other hand, talks in beauty. He always has, and the fact that he has been the Prodigal son for the better part of 20 years has crushed his mother. Alexandra has been “alone” with her caring straight-ruled children and now that she is losing herself she is frightened.
Alexandra is angry. She didn’t see her parents grow old. This aging business has come as a shock. She is furious that her body has chosen to surprise her every morning with a new bit that has fallen away. Sometimes it is mental, sometimes physical. She can’t walk anymore which means that her treasured museums are out of the picture. She gets into arguments with her only friends and has, in general, has become her own worst enemy.
The children think it is time for her to leave the brownstone in which she has lived for 45 years, sell it and move into a care facility. Alexandra does not want to budge. Even as her life is collapsing the one thing she does know is that she wants to die in her own home, looking at the tree she saved and listening to the birds. If she falls down the stairs and ends up in a heap, she asks that she be left there. Of course her children don’t want this for her. It is instinct. They cannot be made to wish her ill.
They also cannot be made to let her be. So Alexandra has barricaded herself into her second floor and made Molotov cocktails from developing fluid. With thirty or forty of these babies in her living room she is pretty certain she can blow up the house with her in it. When Chris arrives, this puts a fly in the ointment. Kind of hard to blow yourself up with your favorite child in the next chair over.
This is an important subject, and Alexandra as performed by Ms. Parsons is a might force. What a pleasure to hear someone raging about growing old without wallowing in self-pity. The play itself, however, feels over written. Mr. Coble digresses over and over again from the matter at hand for humor and history – subjects range from potty training, to Alexandra’s world travels before she met her husband, to Chris’s current living situation, none of which is ever solidly connected to the narrative at hand. Parsons does a cracker jack job of going with the flow intended, but both she and Spinella, who comes across as a very bland man, must wade through a lot of fluff.
In his next play, and I hope there is one, Coble can afford to trust his brave taste in subject matter and put more meat on the bones of the story. In this case, what was meant to be extraordinary comes off as thought provoking and timely. Not bad, but not all it could be.
The Velocity of Autumn – By Eric Coble; directed by Molly Smith
WITH: Estelle Parsons (Alexandra) and Stephen Spinella (Chris).
Sets by Eugene Lee; costumes by Linda Cho; lighting by Rui Rita; sound by Darron L. West; associate director, Matt Lenz; production stage manager, Bonnie L. Becker; company manager, Carol M. Oune; technical supervision by Juniper Street Productions; general manager, Foresight Theatrical/Mark Shacket. Presented by Larry Kaye and Hop Theatricals, Van Dean and the Broadway Consortium, Joan Raffe and Jhett Tolentino, Michael J. Moritz Jr., Catherine and Fred Adler, Rob Hinderliter and Dominick Laruffa Jr., and Kirn Productions, in association with Neal Rubinstein, James L. Simon and Stephen Ganns/Jonathan Demar, R. Erin Craig and Seiler-Smith/Franklin Theatrical and James Valletti and Tony McAnany. At the Booth Theater, 222 West 45th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through Aug. 17. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.