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The Velocity of Autumn

Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella lead the cast of Eric Coble's new drama at Arena Stage.

Stephen Spinella and Estelle Parsons in The Velocity of Autumn.
(© Teresa Wood)
Can humor be found in the somewhat-deranged threats of a 79-year-old woman peppering her home with bottles of flammable photography liquid in an attempt to keep her family from taking her to a nursing home?

It doesn't take long for that question to be answered as a resounding "Yes!" once esteemed actress Estelle Parsons is revealed as the feisty Alexandra in Eric Coble's humorous yet bittersweet new two-person play, The Velocity of Autumn, currently playing at Arena Stage.

As she sits in her Brooklyn brownstone, furniture blockading the doors, Zippo lighter in hand, Alexandra prepares to face any army who dares to say she has to leave — a directive that is coming from her never-seen children, Michael and Jen. She wants to die in her home and will blow it and herself up if necessary.

Trying to save the day is her youngest son, Chris, played by two-time Tony winner Stephen Spinella, who heroically climbs a tree up to her window in an attempt to talk his mom down, both literally and figuratively.

Though their reunion starts off on somewhat shaky ground. At this point we're not quite sure if Alexandra is suffering from dementia or just plain stubbornness. Parsons and Spinella convey a great mother-son bond, bringing out all the complexities of a relationship where Alexandra is both upset at her son for his journeyman absenteeism from her life in recent years, yet proud for his decision to follow his own path.

At 85, Broadway veteran Parsons is remarkable in a role that requires nearly 90 straight minutes onstage, meandering back and forth between memories, threats, and unfulfilled dreams. She is funny, somewhat sweet in that crazy-old-lady way, and has us rooting for her kids just to leave her the hell alone. Even though Parsons plays a character who has some "senior moments," rather than use that as a crutch, at one point on opening night Parsons did belt out, "I have no idea what the next line is." As the audience laughed, she quickly got back into scene and had them cheering for her all over again.

For his part, Spinella winningly portrays the role of the caring son who seems both ashamed at his not having been there sooner yet perhaps grateful that he didn't see the fall of grace from his mom. Emotions abound in the interactions the two share, remembering a childhood visit to the Guggenheim Museum and recounting stories of Alexandra's travels. All of this rekindles a once-close bond, and it appears as if Chris is on her side.

The laughs come at you from all angles, as if it's a high-bred sitcom on TV. A phrase as simple as "different strokes" takes on a whole new meaning when discussing the number of strokes an upstairs neighbor has had. Then, during an interaction when Alexandra is trying to remember the name of a family member, the two recount chuckling character descriptions that would make the Addams Family seem normal.

Despite the laughs, the theme of The Velocity of Autumn is no joking matter. Anyone who has faced the decision of taking a parent to a home understands how heartwrenching it can be for both parties. Coble's script brings that drama to life. Parsons' pleas to her son to stay her brings a tear to the eye.

Director Molly Smith finds the right balance of humor and melancholy and makes the most of a tight space and fast-paced script. The aforementioned tree is a highlight of Eugene Lee's set. Situated dead center of the stage outside the window, its sturdy base and color-transforming leaves symbolizes the strength and change of Alexandra herself. Another telling sign are the empty living room walls, with traces of photos that used to hang, which is explained in the script as being taken down because Alexandra could no longer remember what they were.

The Velocity of Autumn is a special treat for patrons of the Arena Stage, for the original plans for the production were to open on Broadway, but when a suitable theater couldn't be found, producers opted for this "exclusive pre-Broadway engagement" with the same cast in tow.

When it does arrive on the Great White Way, next spring as expected, the Tony race for Best Actress will already have one formidable choice in Parsons, who gives new meaning to "an explosive performance."