On Stage: Aging Gracefully

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Eric Coble’s timely “Velocity of Autumn” grapples with age and family.

Stephen Spinella as Chris and Estelle Parsons as Alexandra in "The Velocity of Autumn." (Photo by Teresa Wood.)

Stephen Spinella as Chris and Estelle Parsons as Alexandra in “The Velocity of Autumn” at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. (Photo by Teresa Wood.)

Seeing the incomparable Estelle Parsons in “August: Osage Country” was one of those theatrical experiences that is so special it stands out in a lifetime of theatrical performances. The octogenarian Parsons, who is remembered for winning an Academy Award for her performance in the movie, “Bonnie and Clyde,” and for a long distinguished stage, film and television career, is presently starring in the Arena Stage production of “The Velocity of Autumn.”

I was so looking forward to another moving performance by an artist who dominates whatever she is in, but the two-actor production at Arena didn’t serve Parsons well. Both Parsons and Stephen Spinella struggled to make something out of a story about a feisty 79-year-old woman (Parsons) living alone in her New York townhouse surrounded by dozens of Molotov cocktails she threatens to use if her children force her to move into a nursing home. They are worried about her and are considering having the police remove her for her safety and that of the neighborhood.

I couldn’t help feeling that Parsons would have been better served by having the playwright Eric Coble turn the performance into a one-woman show. That is not a criticism of Parsons or Spinella. Coble does, however, understand the real world of a lonely woman who is unwilling to give up her independence. It is a crisis that many families experience as people live longer and are losing the ability to care for themselves. In this case, that frightened, lonely woman, Alexandra, knows she is losing control and is determined to not go gently into that good night.

Two of her children who have been frustrated by her intransigence have sent their brother, Chris, whom nobody in the family has seen for years. He is forced to get into his mother’s apartment by climbing a tree and coming though the window to bypass her barricades. For the next 90 minutes Chris, who understands his mother better than his siblings because they are so alike, tries to convince Alexandra that she hasn’t much choice. In the end, they both know that no matter how awful it seems, she can’t live alone anymore. There are some witty reposts sharply delivered in Parsons’ familiar feisty style, but mostly there is that melancholic undercurrent about the destructive process of aging. Coble contends there is a velocity of the process in the autumn of life, hence the title.

Set designer Eugene Lee has created an effective set that has the look of an apartment where Alexandra has spent so much of her life surrounded by the things that are important to her, but now is cluttered with those Molotov cocktails and furniture piled up against the entrance door. There are light moments in “Velocity of Autumn,” but there is the overriding sad awareness that Alexandra, for all her spirit, can’t win this battle. In spite of the effective performances of Parsons and Spinella, there is a flatness to the 90-minute production that doesn’t pick up until near the end. Molly Smith’s direction is solid and sensitive, but it doesn’t rise above the weakness of the play.

The Velocity of Autumn” continues through Oct. 20 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, $49-$90, available at 202-488-3300 and online here.

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