Alexandra, age 79 (Susan Greenhill), has barricaded herself inside her Brooklyn brownstone under threat from two of her adult children, who want to move her to a nursing home. Trouble is, she's bolstered her barricade with her own threat — of bringing down the whole house with the dozens of Molotov cocktails she's made and clustered throughout her apartment. In desperation, Jennifer and Michael call in their younger brother, Chris (Mark Anderson Phillips), who agrees to return after a 20-year absence to see if he can "talk sense" into their mother.
After climbing a tree to enter through a window, Chris is initially greeted with anger and scorn for his long silence and lame attempt to reason with Alexandra. What right, after all, has he to chide her for anything, having run from contact with his family so long ago? But it unfolds that Chris was a special favorite, the child Alexandra felt the most affinity with, as a fellow artist and independent creative-thinker. Their relationship runs deep, so his estrangement was especially hurtful and puzzling to her.
Alexandra's fierce protection of her right to age and die in her own home seems standard fare, except that lately there have been incidents, something about an uncharacteristic fight at the bridge table, and a problem at the grocery store that she won't talk about. We also learn that crippling arthritis has ended her ability to paint, and even curtailed her usual excursions to the library or her beloved museums.
Chris has had his own trials, bouncing from job to job, lover to lover, still seeking his way as an artist and a man, still running away from home and himself. When he and his mom finally begin to reconnect, there's a palpable relief, a recognition of an old and valuable kinship that deserves their attention.
Laced with delightful, irreverent humor, the play also serves up numerous stories — of suicidal ideation, witnessing a fatal accident, a shamanistic ritual, childhood memories, Alexandra's youth and marriage and her wry take on motherhood — that can sometimes feel like protracted birdwalks in order to make a point, but they do pay off in deeper understanding of these characters and their shared destiny.
It's a recognizable tale told with a twist, perhaps of a two-edged sword, as Alexandra calls aging — on the one hand, you're filled with knowledge and a lifetime of experience, a richness of knowing who you are and what you're capable of; and on the other hand, you're now deprived of the physical ability to pursue any more dreams, confined to ever smaller spaces and running out of time.
Her climactic monologue is chilling and real, a genuine bewilderment at the worst cruelty of all, the fear that we must face if granted enough years. But Coble ends his tale with a sense of renewal, forgiveness and hope; we should all be so fortunate.
Greenhill is superb as the feisty grandmother, giving just enough physical hints at her age and debilities without overdoing them, and is entirely believable in both her ferocity and her vulnerability. Phillips, looking scruffy and rag-tag, carries the weariness of middle-age failure with conviction. He seems a little young for even Alexandra's youngest child, but makes up for it with terrific story-telling, keeping those long rambles engaging. Both actors are strong enough to fill 90 minutes playing splendid point and counterpoint, finding all the humor and the nuances to bring out the best in the text. Kudos also must go to director Giovanna Sardelli, who has no doubt guided the delineation of characters and their shifting relationship.
Andrew Boyce's brownstone set is a marvel, and looks perfectly, subtly authentic, with details such as odd jars and bottles everywhere. Costumes by Jill C. Bowers, lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Brendan Aanes all work together beautifully to render a satisfying spectacle without distracting from the central action of the play.
Coble's play received mixed critical reception in its Broadway debut but this may be a case when a regional production conveys more substance and significance, illuminating a work in ways the Broadway team missed. Yes, some sitcom humor; yes, an element of predictability; but also honest portrayals of a relationship that will tug at your heart and stay with you long after curtain.
In a matinee audience filled with patrons facing their own personal autumns, the play rang true with stunning relevance, and even a kind of redemptive beauty. That said, it's a tale for everyone, a shamanistic painting of the theatrical kind, reminding us of the impermanence and the wonder of life.
What: "The Velocity of Autumn," by Eric Coble, presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Through June 26, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. Sundays
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.
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