Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Velocity of Autumn

Eric Coble’s script + Dorothy Silver’s performance = captivating theatre at Beck

According to the US Census Bureau, the elderly are the fastest growing population in the United States. At present those 65 and older number 35 million and their presence is increasing by 12 percent a year. Many of these people find themselves in precarious situations. One of the major issues is where should they live? Historically, as a person aged, they were absorbed into the on-going family unit. But, those times have changed. More and more elderly are warehoused in nursing and retirement homes, often against their will. They are disrespected as their senses start to diminish, family members want to cash in on expected inheritances, and caring for the old is too much of a burden.

What happens to 78-year old Alexandra is the topic of Eric Coble’s poignant play, THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, now in production at Beck Center.

Alexandra, a former painter and arts lover, sits in the living room of her Brooklyn townhouse surrounded by bottles of flammable film developer which have been rigged to be pyres of fire. The doors have been barricaded and all but a second story window have been locked. That window, her opening to the world, has been left ajar so she can see a beloved tree, which she has fought most of her adult life to insure is not cut down, and provides a place for birds to sit and chirp.

Alexandra does have slips of memory, her knees and back hurt, she can no longer hold a paint brush, but she is a vital woman who reads, talks on the phone to her friends, and is sharp enough to know that she doesn’t want to leave her home and go to an extended care facility to die. She thoroughly believes, ‘There are good and bad ways to die.”

Alexandra hasn’t lost either her sense of the ironic, or sense of humor. She quips, “You know you are getting old when you start making sounds for your body,” and refers to her children, who want to “put her away” as “over reacting because they have a screw loose.” She doesn’t mind being alone. In fact, she states, “I’m good at it.” She contends that “there can still be beauty as a person comes apart.”

In through the partially open window climbs Chris, the youngest of her three children, and unequivocally her favorite. He’s a person much like her. He presently lives in New Mexico, has difficulty with attachments, and constantly runs in search of the unknown. He is also gay, which caused some family issues.

At first the duo spars, but soon their emotional bridge allows for a connection. As she relates stories of the past, and shares their racing around the curved staircase at the Guggenheim Museum, he tells the tale of Native Americans creating beautiful sand sculptures in the desert, which are then swept away. Swept away, like much of the beauty of life as it nears the end.

Coble, who spent part of his youth on American Indian reservations uses that background to develop this poignant story. The concept of the inclusion rather than exclusion of the elderly in the Native American culture, the respect for the aged, the love of nature, the importance of real family ties, the need for the old to teach the young and share their wisdom, are all part of the tale of THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN.

The Beck production, under the meticulous direction of Eric Schmiedl, is emotionally wrenching, yet humorous. Well paced, the 90-minute of intermissionless time, speeds by.

In the hands of lesser actors the script might not have come to life in the way it did. Coble seems to have written the play for Dorothy Silver, Cleveland’s Uta Hagen/Helen Hayes/Jessica Tandy. Silver is Alexandra, Alexandra is Silver. This is not acting, it’s being. There is a possibility that the script is headed for a New York production, and no one is more deserving of playing the role than Dorothy Silver! The world needs to know what a gem resides in our area!

David Hansen, as Chris, is excellent. Hansen shows a natural flow. He neither over nor under dramatizes the role. He and Silver play well together.

Scenic Designer Todd Krispinsky’s fragmented Brooklyn row-house fits the mood and concept of the play. As with Alexandra, its slightly off-set, showing some age, but still very serviceable.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Seeing THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN is one of those special evenings in the theatre. Dorothy Silver is enthralling, David Hansen is right on target, and Eric Coble’s poignant yet humorous script allows for a much needed look at the plight of the aging in this sometimes heartless culture. This production is an absolutely must, must, must see!