If entrances and exits are the nuts and bolts of theatre, then Eric Coble’s play The Velocity of Autumn is an elegant construction, built simply of one instance each. The former comes early, and comically, when Chris (Stephen Spinella) breaks into his mother’s Brooklyn brownstone by climbing up a tree and sliding in through the window.
It’s an unconventional arrival, surely, but a necessary one: Chris’s mother Aelxandra (Estelle Parsons) has barricaded the door and surrounded herself with enough molotov cocktails to blow up the whole block. In a city of “If you see something, say something,” this set-up certainly seems to call for some attention, and Chris has flown in from New Mexico, ending decades of estrangement, to give it just that.
If the entrance seems laborious, it’s nothing compared to the exit, the achievement of which necessitates a battle of wills and constitutes the central struggle of this dramatic comedy. Granted, it’s not really a fair fight: Chris is largely mild-mannered, the type of mustachioed, soul-patched guy in his mid-40s who moves to New Mexico to make art with sunflower seeds. Alexandra, meanwhile, is nearly 80, angry, and laden with explosives. Submission to Chris (and his older siblings Michael and Jennifer) could mean the diminishment of her mental and physical capacities, as well as the loss of her home and, most importantly, her self-determination.
Early on, the outrageousness of the situation, and Parsons’ wild, slurred speech make for some good, if ephemeral, laughs. At 86, Parsons (best known for her performance in Bonnie and Clyde and her role as mother Bev on the television show Roseanne) proves she’s still got it – and then some. Quickly though, and mercifully, Coble takes things down a notch, giving Chris and his mother the time and peace to get to the inevitable heart-to-heart we’re expecting.
The skeletons, in due form, come marching out of the closet as well as new disagreements about Alexandra’s future. For those with elderly parents of their own, Alexandra and Chris’s fraught relationship, marked by the inevitable fluctuation of power dynamics that come with age, will resonate. But The Velocity of Autumn is more than a soap opera. Their discussion, in time, turns from old grievances to profound meditations on art, life and death. Especially rewarding are Alexandra’s observations on aging, which are as accurate as they are heartbreaking. “The truth is, I’m not me anymore,” she says. “Whoever ‘me’ was. It doesn’t matter if I stay in my house or some nursing home or on a bench in Prospect Park. I’m going to be less and less me.”
While these less explosive scenes are more rewarding, keeping the momentum going in a show that’s largely static is a challenge. Director Molly Smith does a fine job of making use of the space (a living room designed beautifully by Eugene Lee), but there are times when, like anyone holed up inside for too long, audience members might feel a little restless. When it finally comes time for that exit, it’s well earned, but it’s also a bit of a relief.