The Velocity of Autumn

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IMG_0776This past weekend we took another one day trip up to the Arena Stage in Washington, DC to see The Velocity of Autumn, a ninety-minute, one act play, by award winning playwright, Eric Coble.  And oh, what a fantastic show.  This two person play, starring Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, (Bonnie and Clyde) and two-time Tony winner Stephen Spinella, (Angels in America) had me rolling in the aisles with laughter and teary eyed with sadness all at the same time.

Artistic Director at the Arena, Molly Smith, says in her program notes, “We find ourselves in the middle of some of the most powerful questions we face as human beings.  When does one step in to help a parent and when does one stay out?  What happens when family members are unequally engaged? Whose responsibility is it anyway? What happens when authorities step in? Police, social services, doctors: What is this thing we call control and how long do we get to hold onto it?  How much are we like our parents – what is nature and what is nurture?”

The play is about seventy-nine year old artist, Alexandra, and her war with her children who want to put her in a nursing home. She’s surrounded herself with explosives in bottles and jars wicked with rags, while in her hand she holds an old Zippo lighter that once belonged to her husband. Her front door is barricaded with furniture. She’s determined to be left alone, and is ready to blow herself, the building, and the whole block up if her daughter and one of her sons, send in the police to drag her away.

As the play opens Alexandra is asleep in her easy chair with classical music playing in the background. Her youngest son Chris, also an artist, climbs up the magnificently autumn colored tree just outside her large bay window. He opens the sash from the outside, climbs into the room, scaring his mother who is ready to light the fuse on one of the bottles.

Chris and his mother have not seen or talked to each other for years since he ran off to explore the world and discover who he was becoming.  Chris, commandeered by his sister and brother to help bring their mother to her senses, is greeted with Alexandra’s rage. Mother and son connect as Chris listens to her wishes to be left alone, to watch her tree grow outside her window, living in her own home of some forty years. Through shared  memories of past visits to New York’s finest art museums when Chris was small and a budding artist himself, they of begin to find balance, coming to terms with what lies ahead.

As we walked out of the theatre after the show, I told Bill, “I understand much better what my mother was going through during the last years of her life.”  About to turn seventy-one in November, this poignant discussion about aging, independence, and family, helped me to understand how quickly the autumn of our lives comes upon us and the difficulties we face when we insist upon being by ourselves as our coping skills become less than what they were.

I found myself suffering along with Alexandra, needing to be in control and left to her own devices. But as the child and caretaker of a now deceased mother, I also understood Chris and his siblings’ need to protect their parent and the community around her. Chris unlike his absent siblings, brings sensitivity to the conversation and the war comes to a close.

I remember how terrible I felt when I told my mother that it was time for her to turn over her car keys to me. She’d been visiting the body shop almost monthly to repair the dents and dings her car accumulated while she was out and about being independent. Afraid the problem might one day grow into harming another person, I asked her to give up her car. I watched her spirit shrink as she lost her independence. I’ve spent hours wondering how I will feel if and when I find myself in the same position.

Despite future possibilities, I’m enjoying my elder-hood. It is a joyous time. I have more freedom than I’ve ever had in my life. I am not an old lady who sits on her porch in her rocking as the world goes by. I’ve been around and learned some amazing things about life and survival. And I keep moving on. Should I ever face what Alexandra faced, I hope I’ll not surround myself with explosives. I’d prefer to take joy in what I have and can do to live each day as a reward for sticking it out through the bad times.

This show is on its way to Broadway.  With all the Baby Boomers coming of age, I think it will be a hit.  Don’t miss it!


  1. I hadn’t realized that Washington D.C. was such a magnet for the theatre although, as I recall, I saw some amazing plays there years ago when I was there for a conference. This one seems like it could actually help the generations bond and bridge the some of the gaps in their thinking and their experiences. I especially relate to Alexandra because my dad was fiercely independent, too. After my mom died, he insisted in staying in that big old house out in the country and as his eyesight faded, the seven-mile drive to town became suddenly unsafe. It was a wading road that hugged the river bank. My brother finally had to take his keys away and, as a male member of The Greatest Generation (WWII), he was devastated. He took it very hard. I am sure that this story was especially meaningful to you, Joan.

    • Yes, Judy, it was very meaningful for me, having spent so many years being my mothers caretaker. It’s taken years to begin to understand what that time must have been like for her. And as I age I begin to get clearer picture of what could await me.

      I have a feeling that it might be more difficult for men than women to lose their independence because they were the warriors and breadwinners in those days.

  2. Most difficult decision I ever had to make in my life… won’t go into all the details but it has been almost 3 years since my mother moved into a beautiful assisted living home with her own little apartment. Everything is taken care of for her as she could no longer care for herself. My mother will never forgive me but I have no regrets. Having been through this experience with her, when my turn comes I will have a better understanding and I believe I will accept it as another stage in my life…

    • Those decisions are so hard to make because it feels like playing God and in many cases the decision maker is never forgiven. I’m glad you have no regrets.

  3. Earlier this year my sister and I had to take sell our dad’s car and home and place him in a WONDERFUL assisted living facility. He was beyond livid at the time (had he been able to, he would have hit us). BUT now that he’s used to having all of his needs met (clean unit, three wonderful delicious meals a day, laundry taken care of, doctor’s appointments scheduled, outings with other people his age, etc) he’s embraced the positive, uplifting, constructive, and healing change.

    • Laurie, I hope that’s how I’ll be if and when the time comes. But of course I need not worry. I going down being an adventurer! 🙂