Alexandra, the 79-year-old heroine of Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, isn’t raging against the dying of the light so much as threatening to obliterate it with Molotov cocktails and spite. Played with remarkable energy by Oscar-winning actress Estelle Parsons, herself a sprightly 85, Alexandra takes umbrage when failing health and a fussy family threaten her independence, barricading her door with chairs, crafting dozens of improvised explosive devices out of empty bottles and developing fluid, and gritting her teeth so resolutely it’s a wonder she’s able to spit out all that fury.
Alexandra’s wannabe savior comes in the form of her estranged son, Chris (Stephen Spinella), an aging hippie in cowboy boots with a graying ponytail who climbs into his mother’s window via a mighty tree outside her Brooklyn brownstone. Despite the fact that the pair haven’t met in 15 years, she isn’t all that thrilled to be interrupted in her one-woman terror campaign against infirmity and meddling relatives, and the two characters proceed to snipe at each other for most of the show’s 90-minute duration.
Directed by Molly Smith, Velocity had been intended for a Broadway run last year, but a suitable house failed to materialize, so the show got a staging at Arena instead, although it’s still hoping to land there eventually. Before it does, it could use a touch more polishing. The first half of the play feels a little rough around the edges, with both actors talking over each other and Parsons asking for a line prompt on press night. Her venom, while extraordinarily well-rendered, also makes Alexandra less than sympathetic at the beginning, as she derides her son as “cockamamie,” snarls at the audience with a raspy tone, and brandishes a Zippo lighter with the desperate rage of a cornered animal.
Toward the middle of the show, however, the pace becomes smoother, and Spinella gets to shine as he expresses haunting feelings of pain and isolation. Something about Chris’s mournful spirit seems to ease Alexandra’s aggression, and the two begin to bond over their mutual love of art and distrust of Chris’s siblings. Coble’s script has some deeply funny one-liners, and Parsons delivers them with relish. “Your being gay was not a dealbreaker for your father, it just made him feel uncomfortable,” she tells Chris at one point. “Like Gorgonzola cheese.” Spinella, meanwhile, is flawless in communicating his character’s dry, comical sadness, railing at his unorthodox upbringing and getting easily infuriated by his brother’s snotty, incessant phone calls.
It’s also in the second half of the show that we finally get to empathize with and pity Alexandra’s plight. She is fiercely independent, her idiosyncratic character nicely illustrated by the knickknacks and books that clutter Eugene Lee’s set, and her maddening feebleness is portrayed vividly by Parsons, who shuffles around the set and frowns at her son as if she’s having trouble hearing him. The disconnect between her physical fragility and her fiery spirit is at the crux of the play, and it forces the audience to acknowledge how inappropriate it is to treat the elderly as if they were no more capable than children.
Adding to the melancholy beauty of the second half of the show is Rui Rita’s lighting, which eases so gently from bright daylight to warm twilight on the tree outside Alexandra’s window that it only becomes noticeable late in the play. Costume designer Linda Cho dresses Chris like a late-stage Marlboro man, emphasizing his alien qualities in the New York air, and Alexandra in vivid purple with a matching headscarf, which brings to mind this Jenny Joseph poem: “When I’m an old woman I shall wear purple . . . I shall go out in my slippers in the rain/And pick flowers in other people’s gardens/And learn to spit.” Funny, abrasive, and fierce, Alexandra turns out to a gem of a character, and Parsons an actor who’s equally steely and rewarding to encounter.
The Velocity of Autumn is at Arena Stage through October 20. Running time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($45 and up) are available via Arena’s website.