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Eric Coble's 'Velocity of Autumn'

(L to R) Stephen Spinella (Chris) and Estelle Parsons (Alexandra), The Velocity of Autumn, Arena Stage (photo by Teresa Wood)

Getting old is hell, but it is better than the alternative, or so the saying goes. A vast sector of American society is entering the so-called golden years, and the 60s generation's ideas about how they want to spend the ends of their lives are likely to be as fixed and free-thinking as all their other ideas. Alexandra, the octogenarian protagonist of Cleveland-based playwright Eric Coble's new play, The Velocity of Autumn, has decided that she is going to end her days in the familiar setting of her Brooklyn brownstone, and no one -- not even her well-meaning but annoying older children -- is going to stop her. To make sure of that, she barricades herself inside with many bottles of explosive liquid in jars and her father's Zippo at the ready.

Other Articles:

Peter Marks, ‘The Velocity of Autumn’: Does Mom know best in her golden years? (Washington Post, September 24)

---, ‘The Velocity of Autumn’: For Eric Coble’s drama, it’s full-speed ahead to Arena Stage (Washington Post, September 13)

Tim Smith, Estelle Parsons soars in 'The Velocity of Autumn' at Arena Stage (Baltimore Sun, September 19)

Joel Markowitz, An Interview with Playwright Eric Coble on His Play ‘The Velocity of Autumn’ at Arena Stage by Joel Markowitz (D.C. Metro Theater Arts, August 27)

Erik Piepenburg, ‘The Velocity of Autumn’ Set for Arena Stage (New York Times, February 26)
The play, premiered in 2011 and still being revised and tweaked, has opened at Arena Stage. The production, directed by the company's artistic director, Molly Smith, was intended for a Broadway opening last spring, which fell through, because a suitable theater could not be secured, according to its backers. The play may still go to Broadway, but fans of the two actors -- Estelle Parsons (Roseanne, Bonnie and Clyde) as Alexandra and Stephen Spinella (Angels in America) as her estranged son, Chris -- will want to see it now. In spite of its rather lurid premise, this is a play with many big laughs, of the smart rather than cheap variety, and profound characters that draw the viewer in by both their shortcomings and their virtues.

As played by Parsons, who is herself in her 80s, Alexandra is indomitable in the face of her declining body and mind -- still capable of viperous bite and overblown rhetoric. Her two older children, who still live in New York, do not want to listen to her demand that she be allowed to die in her house, so lovingly evoked by set designer Eugene Lee. Her youngest son, Chris -- given a sensitive, slightly lost pathos by Spinella -- returns after a long absence to try to talk her down from the cliff's edge. Without giving away too much of the story, Alexandra and Chris may have their differences, but a devotion to art, both personal and professional, unites them, too. This is perhaps what gives the story added poignancy for a viewer equally devoted to art of any kind. We know that life is made sweeter by our experience of art -- or music, literature, and so on -- and the thought of losing it makes life seem that much less bearable.

This production continues through October 20 at Arena Stage.

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