ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
The Velocity of Autumn
The old tree, among the few we are told that remain in the neighborhood, rises majestically well above and beyond the frame of designer Eugene Lee's wonderfully cluttered interior setting signifying a kind of embracing protection. But as we can see by the ready-to-detonate explosives, the ailing Alexandra, as played by eighty-five year old Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, isn't relying on the tree for protection.
Alexandra is quite an unusual character, someone who will be recognizable to many for her courageously independent nature. What sets her apart in this hyper-emotional drama is that she has little rapport or affection for her three children.
As an artist who is no longer able to hold her brushes, Alexandre is, nevertheless, well-equipped, to stave off all interference from two of them (unseen). With an artist's flair for fashion given the pretty print floral dress she is wearing, her flair for being in charge of her own life extends to a drastic plan to survive their meddling. Getting her out and into assisted living may be their primary mission, but hers certainly is keeping them at bay at any cost as she holds the option to blow the place up if need be. Like Garbo, she wants to be left alone. Not likely under the circumstances.
Ironically it is the tree that serves as the conduit by which her estranged son Chris (Stephen Spinella) makes his way into her home via the sturdiest branches, and getting one of the few laughs for its execution in this otherwise sad and poignant play by Eric Cobble about old age and the relinquishing of one's independence. Like Alexandra, Chris is also an artist who decided fifteen years ago to break all ties to his family and move to New Mexico after his father had rejected him for being gay. With his long gray hair pulled back in a pony tail and in western couture, he has been summoned home by his siblings to persuade Alexandra to remove the barricades, locks and the furniture that has been pushed against the doors.
The soft-spoken Chris finds that his mother is a more formidable and defiant foe than he could ever have imagined. She screams at him, "Why did they send you. . .the ones who want me out, after 45 years here, who want to lock me up and shove tubes in me and chain me to a bed." With Parson's signature raspy voice in strident full throttle and Spinella's often barely audible declarations and defenses in mostly full retreat, the play uses its ninety minutes giving Alexandra a determinedly unconquerable voice that makes no concession to her having to be nice or even compassionate or compliant to either to Chris or to the wishes of her other children.
Just as Alexandra's actions, accusations, and outbursts of rage gradually ebb and subside for a while in the wake of Chris's revelations about being gay and as an unloved member of the family, they both begin to realize they share a bond —i being artists, loving art, disliking the family members who have decided to take charge. Interrupted by hostile phone calls from his siblings, Chris tries valiantly to breach the distrust that is evident in his mother's mostly heart-wrenching, ear-piercing tirades. A line delivered by Alexandra: "Your being gay was not a deal-breaker for your father, it just made him feel uncomfortable, like Gorgonzola cheese," is more cheesy than funny.
Despite a rather lame and disaffecting ending, the play gives the formidable Parsons ample room to switch emotional gears and sway our affections without missing a beat, even as we can also sense the stirrings of her character's impending dementia. Frail and feisty, Alexandra gives voice to many of the fears we face with aging into sharp relief.
I wish director Molly Smith, who also directed The Velocity of Autumn at its premiere at D.C. Arena Stage, would have insisted that the usually fine and sensitive actor Spinella speak up so that more of his often inaudible and presumably illuminating speechifying could be more readily heard.
What can be heard loud and clear is Coble's soul-searching message: the dilemma all families face in choosing to respect the wishes of the elderly — and also what it really means to be lovingly and responsibly responsive.