With the stage in total darkness the house is consumed with loud noises of a storm and sirens evoking a very chaotic state. It last for about a minute, just enough to make your heart begin to race, then it all goes silent and the lights come up on the house. There she is, Alexandra (Estelle Parsons) reclining in her chair taking a little nap while holding a lighter and a bottle of flammable photography fluid.
The Velocity of Autumn is the story of Alexandra and her son Christopher (Stephen Spinella). They haven’t seen each other in twenty years. Christopher has only returned home to convince his mother that it is time to leave their family home because it appears she can’t handle the upkeep of the home and herself. After he climbs a tree to “break in” to the house, Alexandra threatens to burn down the whole house with her in it; that is all she seems to want, to die in her own home. From there the plot and relationship unfolds in to a great web or stories from the last twenty years of their lives.
Playwright Eric Coble creates a great sense of urgency with only two visible characters. His secret weapons are two unseen characters – Christopher’s siblings Michael and Jen who are waiting in the front yard of the house nagging Christopher to convince their mother to peacefully leave the house.
Another incredibly important element of the Coble’s work that kept this story alive were the beautiful storytelling moments Alexandra and Christopher each had. One of these moments occurred when Christopher was telling the story of the day he left his dull job to go out to lunch and went to a different area of town to try something new. He was about to cross the street and witnessed an accident and his actions and/or inaction while the injured woman laid in the street has haunted him since. It was such a tender yet heartbreaking story that it sucked me into Christopher’s mind. Spinella acted it so beautifully, making it clear that his mind was noticeably far away on that street corner with that poor woman.
Alexandra is given her moments and Parsons grabs them and makes each word and each gesture important. When she finally explains the severity of her condition to Christopher – when she tells him about leaving a grocery store and not knowing how to return home – it is devastating. This is the moment when the audience finally understands how severe her condition is and why her children are pushing so hard to get her to leave the house. Parsons’ Alexandra is the farthest thing from an aching, old senile woman, but she channels a woman who – sadly – is experiencing that mental and physically stress with grace, beauty, and dignity – as only this ‘legend’ can.
Of Alexandra’s three children, Christopher is most like her. They are both artists and both think of things creatively instead of logically, and through them we see how our parents shape the way we view the world.
In a reception following the performance Director Molly Smith could not have said things more perfectly. She explained, “There is a third character in the play each night, and that is you. It’s your experiences with your family and parents that you are thinking about while watching this show each night.” Everyone will get a little something different from this show based on their own family experiences.
The design of The Velocity of Autumn is stunning. The whole set is the living room of the house, yet Set Designer Eugene Lee has the set impeccably dressed with knick knacks and books and dozens of bottles of photography fluid ready for Alexandra to light. The lighting design of Rui Rita also compliments the house perfectly with fresh light in the room and a beautiful illusion of natural light on the tree that was just outside the window that is up center of the house.
A full and enthused house welcomed The Velocity of Autumn at Arena last night. The show should transition to Broadway smoothly, but only after DC audiences get to enjoy these two glorious performers ‘playing off each other’ for a while longer.
Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Velocity of Autumn plays through October 20, 2013 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s Kreeger Auditorium – 1101 Sixth Street, SW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.
An Interview with Playwright Eric Coble on His Play ‘The Velocity of Autumn’ at Arena Stage by Joel Markowitz.