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October 01, 2013

Theater Review: The Velocity of Autumn

Candace K. Cliatt

(Note: The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: BIFOCAL Vol. 35, Issue 1.)

DC meets New York in the second-floor living room of a tiny Brooklyn brownstone: passion and wit, embodied in the form of this exclusive pre-Broadway engagement, greet the District and extend a warm invitation to come in. Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, performed beautifully in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage, delightfully details the pains and frustrations associated with growing older and the responsibilities of care that ensue. It is a gripping tale of reality for some, and a constant reminder for many, that the effects of aging are common to us all. However, Coble effectively weaves in bouts of humor, seemingly to inform the audience that gaiety exists even in the midst of family conflicts surrounding difficult decision making.

Sound designer Darron West introduces the audience to the play through a series of blaring police sirens. The set, designed by Eugene Lee, reflects the sophistication of a resident in a New York brownstone. There are shelves of books, even a John Grisham novel on the floor, and the stage is teeming with what appear to be empty wine bottles. Yet, the bottles contain film-developing fluid, there are empty spaces on the walls where paintings used to hang, and there are chairs and tape across the door to keep unwanted guests out. Soon, the correlation between the sirens and the set is made known: it has been creatively laid out to symbolize the imprisoning affects aging can have on maturing citizens.

Inside this ingenious set, Alexandra (Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons) begrudgingly greets her son Chris (Tony Award-winner Stephen Spinella) who is trying to convince her to move into a nursing home against her wishes. The dialogue between mother and son is endearing; through their bickering back and forth, Alexandra fights for her role as matriarch while Chris wrestles with the question of how much influence he should try to assert in his mother’s life. Love is the only constant in this heated conversation as both mother and son realize they have more similarities than differences—both share the undying need for independence and freedom. Spinella is simply amazing; his portrayal of a loving, but oft misunderstood, son is Alexandra’s spine—uplifting her, buttressing her very character. Likewise, Parsons’s performance is admirable. Her ability to outwit her son, moving him to tears, and to ultimately reach her own conclusions is inspiring.

Artistic Director Molly Smith has assembled an amazing show with a lucid focus and cohesiveness that is not only impressive, but also engaging to audience members of all ages.

Also, the costume design of Linda Cho provided an interesting irony. Alexandra wears a long floral-printed dress that is reminiscent of spring—not autumn. Perhaps, her wardrobe choice was included for a statement all its own: the fight for youth and autonomy do not go easily into the night. Parsons and Spinella, the dynamic duo, end the night receiving a standing ovation, and Alexandra closes with a curtsey, so graceful that it would receive the approval of even the late Mrs. Astor. This was an absolute job well done and a joy to behold.

The Velocity of Autumn ran Sept. 6–Oct. 20 at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater in Washington, DC. ■

Candace K. Cliatt

About the author: Candace K. Cliatt is a third-year law student at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens, GA, and is serving as a 2013 fall extern with the Commission on Law and Aging.