Three elements that a theatre must address in a production are place, time, and personalities. The stage and set define the place in which the action occurs. This can be as sparse as a couple of chairs or as elaborate as a fully designed room(s). Plays occur over a couple of hours, with or without an intermission. Some plays represent exactly the amount of the time of the action. Others may span days, months, or years with gaps occurring during scene changes. All the characters in the play portray different personalities interacting with each other according to their beliefs, attitudes, and motivations. In Arena Stage’s season opener, Velocity of Autumn, these three elements set the place, pace, and sense of self.
I found the opening of the play jarring, evoking a revolution from which I wanted to distance myself. Maybe this was the intended effect, for the situation is one which most of us face, but wish would be easily resolved. Upon entering the auditorium, we noticed that the first row was changed from standard theatre seats into arm chairs and sofas. What a cozy way to invite us into a drawing room drama. Yet, spot-lit on two sections of the stage were bottles half-filled with liquid and wicked with torn clothe. When the lights dimmed harsh sound effects of commotion and chaos filled the sound-space. Bottles were breaking, sirens warning, police and firemen barking commands through pull-horns, burning structures and bullets bursting. All of this culminated in one of those movie-trailer swooshes-of-sound climaxes followed by silence.
This wall of sound faded into the front room of Alexandra, (Estelle Parsons). She sleeps in her easy chair, holding a molotov cocktail and zippo lighter. Her aging son appears, climbing the tree outside of her bay window. He eventually struggles up to window level, slides it open, and crawls in. The next 90 minutes of this no-intermission play presents in real time their interactions in that front room, lined by flammable fluids in bottles. The doors are barricaded, trapping both of them in this space until the play resolves.
We learn early on that time is limited. Chris (Stephen Spinella) has been given one hour by his older bother and sister to negotiate their mother out of her home before they call the police to force her out. But, over the next twenty minutes of yelling and quarreling, we learn that he has been estranged from his mother and siblings for several decades. They have probably not spoken for more than 20 years. The next half hour they would disarm each others’ defenses. We learn about their common approach to life, but also sense of loss of themselves to the ravages of aging. The final section of the play kept us wondering how they would resolve their dilemma, as they reminisced on shared joys and questioned whether their bodies would permit finding beauty in their autumn years.
The time pressure presented early on created an artificial sense of urgency to act through the sequence of interactions. This furthered the sense of hyper-reality of this situation. Should adult children and aging parents face the dilemmas inherent in Velocity of Autumn, the scenes presented might either never happen, or be spread out over days, months, or years.
The conflict was embedded in the personalities and relationship of this mother and son. She would never have these conversations, nor make these decisions, with her older son and daughter, who waited on the other end of the cell phone for Chris’ call to start their plan to have the police extract her from her home. Yet, Chris and she shared artistic appreciation, spontaneity, and desire to move from place to place, to come to as much as to go from prior locations. Furthermore, as they age, they have recognized that they wish to have an attachment to some location, some home where they can live out their lives.
This desire to move on and desire to develop attachment are the driving force behind Velocity of Autumn. Alexandra settled into her brownstone in Brooklyn only after she married and devoted her creative energies to rearing her three children. Chris has moved from relationship to relationship in each location. Most recently he has been living in Farmington, New Mexico. He tells stories of his experiences there. But, he is drawn to the tree outside his mother’s bay window, for this is rooted in his childhood. How often are those basic elements of attachment linked to our childhood experiences at home?
Further complicating Alexandra’s dilemma about remaining in her home is her declining memory. The walls show the outlines where frames use to be. We learn that these were the places where she displayed her paintings from years past; paintings which Chris grew up viewing. They are gone, stored in the attic above the stage. Alexandra talks about forgetting: why she went to the store, how to get home, who painted the pictures. With each forgotten item, she has lost some of her self. She fears being removed from her home, and placed in a ‘safe residence’, for then she will have no cues about who she is.
Chris wants to help his mother to remain in her home and re-unite with the museum and concert experiences which gave her joy and sense of self. Alexandra questions whether her body will allow her to stand, walk, and remain alert long enough to engage in community events around her. She questions where she can find beauty in aging.
As with the 90 minute play, the autumn years of one’s life may present time pressure. As abilities dim, one’s ability to act slows. As time accelerates, one’s performance of task falters. As the pace of one’s life and ability to function within that time alters, so does one’s sense of self. The threats are as much internal as they are the adult children standing outside the door.
We usually associate velocity as going fast, though technically it represents whatever speed at which an object moves. That speed could be rapid, slow, constant, or changing. Is the velocity of autumn that change from a prior momentum? Is it the contrast between society’s velocity and individuals rate of action? Is it the conflict between the motion of the generations? As the house lights came up after the curtain call, I noticed, being at the Sunday matinée performance, that many patrons heading up the aisles, included aging parents using canes and their aging children, whispering guidance and extending a supportive hand. I wondered about the velocity of those relationships, as these families enacted what the play had just been compressed into 90 minutes.