You could fairly hear the crackle of anticipation on opening night at Arena Stage when the lights went up on Estelle Parsons. She sat asleep in a chair and there she slept – until the audience tittered with delight at such an audacious beginning. Behind her a middle-aged man struggled up a tree and climbed in through a window. Thus began The Velocity of Autumn, a two-character play starring the Academy Award winner and esteemed New York actress and Stephen Spinella, a two-time Tony Award winner.
Sadly, that first image might serve as a metaphor for what followed. Parsons stayed more subdued than her usual electric self, and Spinella seemed to be continuously trying to climb into the show.
Trying to reconstruct what transpired, I keep replaying the unfolding of this work by Eric Coble.
The plot was promising. Alexandra, an elderly woman clings to life and her home, a brownstone in New York’s Brooklyn neighborhood. Concerned about her physical as well as her mental well being, her grown children have tried to remove her to a facility, but she has barricaded herself into the space and threatened to take out not only the house but the whole block with her arsenal of explosives. Her estranged middle child has returned home by arboreal means to reconnect and try to save his mother, the situation, and his home.
Now, I have a ninety-eight year old mother and have played out that very same war scenario (minus the explosives) to remove a most independent woman from her home – one who always rejected any help from her daughter as interference with the quip, “I like my own company.” I get the story, on a deep level, and many others will too.
You could not have asked for a more perfect actress than Parsons in the role of the feisty individualist and eccentric artist. She has that slash of a mouth that opens sideways like Lucy Brown’s, and her sound remains that unmistakable rat-a-tat-tat spray, like an attack from a semi-automatic rifle, careless of the collateral damage. Parsons has proven on screen and stage that she has the ferocity as well as the intelligence to keep an audience riveted with her sheer command of a role.
But on this opening night, she seemed to be struggling. There were several times she circled back through her lines to find the way, and sometimes, not always, it could be excused as just like her character. But the music of the delivery felt off, and there was one time the veteran actress just abandoned the struggle, “I have no idea what the next line is.” The audience laughed with her forgivingly. But although the audience felt for her, it set up an atmosphere where not one but two actors seemed off their game.
Stephen Spinella has created a wonderful physical characterization with his lanky form in a perpetual slouch and his hands often stuffed in his pockets as if apologizing for his very being. With his graying ponytail and his tentative shamble, he convinced us he was indeed an aging hippie or at least a guy marginalized in society by his alternative lifestyle.
There were some wonderful moments when things started pulsating on stage. When the character Alexandra launched into the section trying to remember names, things clicked along between the two actors, and the audience was totally caught up, riveted and laughing with appreciation. Spinella’s character had a great explosive moment on the telephone to his offstage brother. The electric tension on stage was palpable, and suddenly their whole history as a family came alive. The coiled Spinella sputtered a combination of venom and terror.
But this was one of the few really dramatic moments, and the character providing the conflict existed only offstage.
It felt increasingly through the evening that Spinella was in the wrong space. He seemed to have trouble projecting and sustaining energetically. His kind of TV-naturalism felt at odds with Coble’s play, and often it seemed he was unable to return the ball to Parsons who barked her way through her lines.
The Velocity of Autumn
Closes October 20, 2013
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
1 hour, 25 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $70 – $113 (prices may change)
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Director Molly Smith has gone on record saying she loves this play. I’m just not sure there’s enough there there.
A lot of care was put into the set by Eugene Lee, which brought a very real world to life, dominated by a great bay window and flanked by floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with books and memories of a full intellectually stimulating life. Outside and framed beautifully was a sycamore, radiant in its autumnal glow, symbolic of a long-lived great sturdiness which Alexandra wants so much to cling to for strength. Lighting designer Rui Rita bathed the tree and this world quite beautifully.
Linda Cho, costume designer, succeeds in creating quite the “get up” for Parson’s artistic individualist, with a splotchy magenta, blue and purple dress and bandeau-sized hair band that questionably matched her ochre-colored tights.
This show is marked for Broadway, and everyone clearly wants to hitch a ride with these two stars. Who would not wish for it a big success, but one has to ask if this play is big enough for their sizeable talents.
The Velocity of Autumn by Eric Coble . Directed by Molly Smith . Featuring Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinnella . Set Designer: Eugene Lee . Costume Designer: Linda Cho . Lighting Designer: Rui Rita . Sound Designer: Darron L. West . Stage Manager: Susan R. White and Assistant Stage Manager Michael D. Ward. Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
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