If you’ve ever had an elderly relative and been faced with the decision of whether to begin elder care, then you may find yourself connecting with “The Velocity of Autumn,” the funny, touching new play by Eric Coble now open at the Booth Theatre. Directed by Molly Smith, the dark comedy explores the question of independence, familial obligation and the emotions one experiences when entering life’s final chapter.
Academy Award winner and Broadway veteran Estelle Parsons (“Bonnie & Clyde,” TV's “Roseanne”) plays Alexandra, a feisty 79-year-old artist who’s slowly losing her grip on reality. In fact, she’s slowly losing her grip on everything, as old age has made her body frail. “Any small gripping thing, like a, a pencil, my knuckles and wrist just start aching,” she grumbles. “I can’t do it.”
What Alexandra does seem to have a hold on, however, is her decision that she would rather die alone than succumb to assisted living, in any shape or form. Well, that and the Molotov cocktail she cradles in her arms -- one of many she’s placed around her barricaded Park Slope apartment. Any move to take away Alexandra from her home and from her independence comes at the risk of an explosion that could take out the whole block.
Of course, the real enemy Alexandra is battling is much harder to fight off with some explosives. It’s the dementia. The weaknesses of the body and the mind that comes with age. The dulling of one’s internal light. The disappearance of one’s past. And for a strong-willed, intelligent woman like Alexandra, that might as well be the end. As she cries out late in the play, “What the world is taking away from me, what time is taking away from me, what God is taking away from me… is me.”
It’s a haunting reality, and one Parsons guides us through in a nuanced, skillful performance. She lets Alexandra be brash and ballsy, while still giving her moments of internal doubt and fear. Alexandra’s mind might be foggy, but her tongue never numbs, and Parsons leads that attack with alacrity. You’ll find yourself rooting for Alexandra, sympathizing with her even if the logical part of your brain knows her future is unavoidable.
But we also get to explore that logic through Alexandra's son, Christopher (two-time Tony winner Stephen Spinella of “Angels in America”), who comes to see Alexandra to convince her to end her war. Christopher has been estranged from his family for 20 years, and has returned to play mediator on the urges of his two siblings, who have been dealing with their mother’s health issues throughout. Halfway through his conversations with Alexandra, we realize that Christopher is not steadfast in his siblings’ plan, and he and his mother begin exploring old wounds and building new connections.
“I think you understand the hunger to be free,” Alexandra tells Christopher at one point, showing us that these two characters are more similar than we first thought. That doesn’t mean they get along, and their back-and-forth banter leads to some of the funnier moments in the 90-minute show. “You may not understand this,” says Christopher, “but there are some really primal instincts in children. And one of them is that if you think your mother is lying on the ground in agony, unable to call for help... you kind of want to do something about it.”
“I understand that,” replies Alexandrea. “Fight the instinct.”
Coble gives Spinella many layers to work with in Christopher. His estrangement may have been motivated by anger and a desire for self-discovery, but it’s left Christopher ultimately lost and suicidal. Spinella shows us that fear of a man crippled by guilt and loyalty -- a man finally making a courageous stand after a life of passive living. In the play’s most poignant monologue, Spinella beats through Christopher’s self-doubt, telling the story of a woman who motivated him to finally “do the right thing.”
“And what’s the right thing?” Alexandra asks, as if to all of us.
It’s a question that hits hard, and one of the many tender moments in the 90-minute play that will rattle you to your core. I found it impossible to watch “The Velocity of Autumn” without thinking of my own elder relatives. You might do the same. Coble challenges all of us to think in the gray -- to see the beauty in the coming apart, through laughter and love. Not a hard thing to accept when you have someone on your side.
“The Velocity of Autumn,” through Aug. 17 at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Tickets: $65 - $135. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6300 or visit Telecharge.com.