by Gail M. Burns
Immediately after seeing The Velocity of Autumn at Hubbard Hall, I posted a few glowing sentences on Facebook. I meant every word of them – as a professional theatre critic I would not have made the statement publicly if I didn’t! But saying that I loved or hated or had questions about a production is not a review, it is an opinion. The purpose of a review is to defend the opinion, which is what I will do here.
Simply put, this is a well written play with plausible, relatable characters and the perfect balance of drama and comedy. This handsome production –set by Darcy May and lighting by Calvin Anderson – is lovingly directed by David Snider. Christine Decker and Oliver Wadsworth – both excellent, experienced actors who miraculously live locally – are not only perfect in their respective roles, but they make an energetic team and are thoroughly believable as mother and son.
This is certainly not the first play I’ve seen about adult children and their aging parents. But it is one of the best because it deals with the joys and challenges of both the mother and the son. Christopher (Wadsworth) is in midlife, his work as an artist has stalled, his most recent relationship ended two years ago, he has moved many thousands of mile to end up in a menial job, and he is estranged from his widowed mother and two older siblings.
His mother, Alexandra (Decker) is a woman with a great many of her marbles still in place, but she is slipping, and she knows it, and the one thing she clings to tenaciously is her right to be herself and deal with aging and death on her own terms. This is completely consistent with everything we learn about her over the course of the play. She has always been independent, leaving home at a young age, traveling the world, having some adventures and some affairs before settling down to a long and happy marriage and raising three children in a brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She was an artist, but age-related problems now prevent her from both painting and enjoying her past work.
Her older children, the unseen Michael and Jennifer, fear that their mother is no longer able to care for herself and want to put her in a nursing home. In response she has barricaded herself inside the brownstone with Molotov Cocktails crafted from her late husband’s photographic developing fluid and her own collection of silk scarves. If they attempt to come in and take her away, she will blow herself, indeed probably the whole city block, to kingdom come. In desperation, they call Christopher to see if he can reason with their mother. He gains entrance by climbing the tree outside the living room window – marvelously render by May – because he remembers that that window cannot be locked. Outside Michael and Jennifer wait with the police, ready to forcibly enter and remove Alexandra if Christopher fails.
There they are, face to face, after 20 years apart. That is the beginning. From there playwright Eric Coble takes us through an intricate reunion that is deeply touching. Coble wisely weaves in some genuine humor to leaven the seriousness of the situation, but this is not a comedy.
I hate “cute” plays about older people. There is nothing “cute” about old age. I hate the Golden Girls model too, where older people do nothing but curse and talk about sex for laughs. Alexandra didn’t tolerate cursing from her children when they were young and she’s not going to take it now – which is also good for some laughs. Christopher’s sexual preference is also not a big deal and doesn’t warrant more than a few lines to establish that he is currently single. This is a play about the larger things in life, like what makes each person unique and how we use those identifiers to build a life.
As soon as the play ended the full house I attended with let out a collective sound that indicated great satisfaction. Coble had given them the ending they wanted, one that moved both characters forward into a new adventure. As soon as Wadsworth and Decker re-emerged for their bows the audience leapt to their feet. This was no perfunctory standing ovation, this was an audience genuinely expressing their gratitude for the actors’ artistry.
I asked Wadsworth afterwards if performing the play wasn’t taxing for him physically and emotionally, and he smiled broadly and replied that he and Decker were having fun doing the show together, which is exactly why the audience gave them a standing ovation, because that professional pleasure oozed over the non-existent footlights and animated the play.
The Velocity of Autumn by Eric Coble, directed by David Snider, runs February 23 – March 11, 2018, in the Freight Depot Theater at Hubbard Hall. Technical director Kristoffer A. Ross; scenic design by Darcy May; lighting design by Calvin Anderson; costume design by Sherry Recinella; stage manager Dan Salzer. CAST: Christine Decker as Alexandra and Oliver Wadsworth as Christopher.
Tickets are $30 Adults/$15 Students Ages 6-22, Seniors 62 and older $25. Preview price $15 Adults/$5 Students Ages 6-22. Hubbard Hall Center for Arts and Education, is located at 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, NY. For tickets and more information call 518-667-2495 or visit http://www.hubbardhall.org