The last play I commented on (The Library at The Public Theatre) I described as not the sort of play that you feel comfortable saying you “liked.” It was not a bad play, but its subject matter is not something one “likes” even if it’s presented in an engaging and enlightening manner. I’m tempted to qualify my most recent theatre experience with a similar caveat. However, it’s very difficult not to like “The Velocity of Autumn.” It is a very funny and frequently moving play with bravura performances by two of Broadway’s most engaging actors: Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella.
But this two-hander dramatic comedy by a first-time-on-Broadway playwright and director is about the experience of aging; more accurately, about the things we risk losing control of as we age: our bodies, our memory, and, for some, our ability to live as we want to live, not as some others want us to live. The basic premise of the play concerns the steps that a feisty but weakening woman is taking to prevent her children from moving her into an assisted-living environment. In her rather radical (but fully credible) response, she has barricaded herself in her home and threatens to blow up her house with improvised Molotov cocktails if her offsprings attempt to remove her. One of her sons, the one that followed in her artistic footsteps, comes through her second-story window by climbing her favorite tree and what follows is 90 minutes of negotiations, recollections and reflections, and bonding around shared values and experiences.
As I said above, this is a comedy and this play uses its comedic viewpoint to investigate and elucidate the challenges of maintaining a sense of self as the individual loses more and more control over that self. Struggling to remember a word (as I do so often these days), the mother (Ms. Parsons) observes, “proper nouns are the first thing to leave the body.” At one point, she struggles a bit to get out of her chair, making sounds that illustrate her labor and comments, “That’s how you know you are growing old, when you start to make sound effects for your body.” Not all of the comedy centers on aging; there is plenty of humor in the relationship between mother and son, the familial history, and plain old one-liners that come naturally from two characters that have spent their lives being different.
Parsons and Spinella give vitality and full life to these characters and director Molly Smith (the Artistic Director for Washington’s Arena Stage) has kept the play, with very little plot, focused and balanced between its humor and its portrait of two people struggling to control what is beyond their control. This is a play worth seeing and laughing with.
[Note: The play is currently on TDF and Playbill.com for discounts. After a talk back with the playwright and one of the producers, we were also given a discount code to give to our friends on the play’s website: VelocityofAutumnBroadway.com/offer. Code: VAFNF01]