Estelle Parsons is the spitting, shouting — but by no means cursing — image of irascibility in “The Velocity of Autumn,” a tender-hearted dramedy by playwright Eric Coble (“Bright Ideas”) about the rigors of growing old. Title is making its debut at D.C’s Arena Stage amid aspirations for a Broadway booking that had initially been slated for last spring. Those New York prospects appear bright, thanks to Parsons’ sublime performance and Coble’s penetrating book.
Directed by Arena a.d. Molly Smith, “Autumn” was dropped into the theater’s schedule after a suitable Gotham venue failed to materialize for producer Larry Kaye’s HOP Theatricals.
The play asks: When is the right time to intervene if an elderly parent no longer appears competent to live alone? And how about when mother has barricaded herself inside her Brooklyn brownstone, packed the place with homemade Molotov cocktails and threatens to blow up her building if the police knock on her door?
That’s the predicament faced by son Chris (Stephen Spinella), who is forced to gain entry by climbing a tree outside his mother, Alexandra’s, bay window. What follows is a methodical unveiling of the concerns and eccentricities of both characters as they chase a resolution to the impasse.
Coble defines his play’s two characters as principled but sympathetic combatants who deftly articulate their respective positions on topics including geriatric independence and life’s sobering lessons. The humor is mostly gentle and the perspectives straightforward. “Your time is the most precious thing you have,” mother bluntly reminds her son.
Parsons delivers a delightfully nuanced performance with exuberance and sensitivity. Her Alexandra is a feisty and opinionated soul who would rather die alone from a fall than succumb to a retirement facility or live-in caretaker. Yet she is also a realist who begrudgingly concedes the ravages of time on both mind and body, acknowledging that while her life-long love of art endures, she can no longer hold a paint brush or explain why she suddenly removed her own proud paintings from the walls.
In contrast, Spinella’s earnest son is a decidedly passive individual clearly motivated by loyalty and guilt over a lengthy estrangement. While attempting to defuse the situation, the character unexpectedly reveals a deeply personal experience, providing one of the evening’s most effective moments.
It’s a challenge for the director to build flow and tension between the two rather static occupants of designer Eugene Lee’s spacious apartment, dominated by the window, a single easy chair, an assortment of furniture barricading the door — plus all those incendiary devices. Director Smith manages it adroitly, in a tale that could resonate with a broad range of auds as it touches on a sobering dilemma faced by families every day.