A Mother and a Son Look at ‘The Velocity of Autumn’ by Ellouise Schoettler

Last week my son and I were part of yet another audience captivated by Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella playing mother and son in Eric Coble’s marvelous play The Velocity of Autumn, now playing at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater.

Estelle Parsons (Alexandra) and Stephen Spinella (Chris). Photo by Teresa Wood.
Estelle Parsons (Alexandra) and Stephen Spinella (Chris). Photo by Teresa Wood.

As the play ended all the audience members jumped to their feet applauding. I marveled at the way Coble had woven the words that brought these characters and their relationship so brilliantly to life, and how he also gave audiences insights into the pains of aging that encompass far more than stiff knees.

Estelle Parsons, vigorous and dynamic at 86, is inspiring as she portrays Alexandra, a 79 year-old woman who is failing mentally and physically and flailing against what’s happening to her. “I am losing myself,” she tells her son hoping that he will be capable of listening to her as she pleads for understanding.

Stephen Spinella portrays her son Chris as a character who is initially irritating as he climbs in a window bent on convincing his mother to do what he and his siblings think is best for her. As the play progresses, he softens as he and his mother recover their love for each other and recognize their mutual needs. Someone finally hears her. She knows it will not stop or change the progression of her failing, but now she knows she will not be alone.

My son went to the play with me and he reminded me of earlier times when he had accompanied me to Arena Stage when his father could not go.

Like the mother and son in The Velocity of Autumn, my son, Jim, and I spent many hours during his childhood exploring art museums in Washington, DC, New York, and elsewhere, and often attended the theater together.

On the drive home we talked through the play. We laughed and recognized ourselves in lines where the mother and son traded zingers as they reclaimed an earlier bond between them, and how these zingers were now used that to open a new relationship. When Parsons challenges her son, “Why didn’t you send a picture before you came?” I felt she made the point that he has changed into a man during the twenty years he slipped out of her life and she felt she no longer knew him. I understood that feeling, as, I suspect, so did most parents in the audience, whether the separation from their progeny was to camp, to college or to war,(although not necessarily for twenty years).

Jim told me he was struck by how the relationship between the two characters in this play mirrored some aspects of our own relationship in those early days. As the two characters in The Velocity of Autumn hope for a better relationship, it reminded is that these experiences are the foundation for something more than the core protective relationship of parent for child during childhood, and perhaps of child for parent at the end of the parent’s life. My son observed that, “Parents and children also can be friends or confidants over a lifetime, perhaps because they share experiences and feelings as with no one else.” It made us both grateful for those times spent together.

In The Velocity of Autumn these very childhood experiences became the basis for these two very compelling and complicated people in the play to reach out to each other – despite twenty years of separation. Chris comes to rescue his mother, but finds himself being rescued, because she, more than anyone, “got him” from the beginning.

As we traveled up Connecticut Avenue Jim and I talked about how Estelle Parsons character Alexandra was frustrated with age as it robbed her of the very aspects of her life that had defined her as an individual. For Jim, the message was not that ‘getting old is tough,’ but that the only thing we really have in life is our dignity. “Losing that dignity,” he said, “even to well-intentioned family members, must feel like a fate worse than death.”  We agreed, and then he added, “Mom, this is a lesson for all ages.”

As for me, I related to Alexandra’s fear of losing herself. I particularly liked Alexandra’s lines about waking up every morning and often finding a surprise – “something else was gone.”

When she talked about taking her paintings off the wall because she didn’t recognize them, I shivered.  At 77 and a storyteller, even though I am not yet sitting armed with Molotov cocktails to protect my home, I do wonder what I will do when, like this character, I can’t remember my stories any longer and will not be able to perform as a storyteller. The woman sitting next to me often nodded during the play so I wondered whether she too was thinking about her past and future.

The Velocity of Autumn touches universal themes in relationships and in aging.

Who knows when any of us may find ourselves failing and flailing and having to turn to our children hoping for understanding allies.

As a senior performer and an Estelle Parsons fan, I particularly wanted to see Estelle – who proudly professes 86 years – create and perform the character of Alexandra. She does not disappoint: she inspires and awes me. She certainly knocked me over. She is a dynamic presence who turns her own energy and physical strength to accurately presenting Alexandra as a believable 79-year-old challenged woman through careful mannerisms, postures, and difficulties with her memory. To say I loved this play does not touch my appreciation for Parsons’ skill and talent in giving her audiences a feisty and brave role model as we face the latter stage of life.

I am grateful my son and I shared this evening.

Mostly we applauded the language of the play asking each other, “How did the playwright find the words to bring them so vividly and truly to life and make us all care about them?”

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

Isn’t that the magic of the theater? The playwright lays down the words and the actors create the characters that speak his words and those words move an audience.

And when it works it’s magic – like The Velocity of Autumn did for me and my son. And we and the audience were deeply moved.

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The Velocity of Autumn plays through October 20, 2013  at  Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s Kreeger Auditorium – 1101 Sixth Street, SW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

Review of The Velocity of Summer by Nicole Cusick on DCMetroTheaterArts.

Reviee of The Velocity of Autumn by John Stoltenberg on DCMetroTheaterArts.

An Interview with Playwright Eric Coble on His Play The Velocity of Autumn at Arena Stage by Joel Markowitz.

Read other reviews of The Velocity of Autumn in ‘Other Reviews.’


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