The Velocity of Autumn begins with a huge roaring sound in the darkness — like a bomb going off — accompanied by sirens.
Once the sound rises to nearly unbearable heights, the curtain on Broadway’s Booth Theatre stage opens to a scene of shocking serenity, with an old woman sitting with her eyes closed, quietly listening to classical music as a large, graceful maple tree frames her living room window.
Yet the old woman, Alexandra, is anything but calm. Inside, she is raging.
Look again around her living room, and you see scores of bottles stuffed with fabric — Molotov cocktails that Alexandra threatens to ignite and blow the place to kingdom come.
The dark comedy is prolific Cleveland Heights playwright Eric Coble’s Broadway debut, which opened Monday in New York after runs in Boise, Idaho, the Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood and Arena Stage in Washington.
“The opening image was all me,” Coble said of the seemingly calm visual in a phone interview from New York the morning of his opening. It was director Molly Smith’s idea to add the brilliantly contrasting sound effects to kick off this incendiary show, which has a limited Broadway run through Aug. 17.
In this two-person show, the ferocious Alexandra, played by Estelle Parsons, has barricaded herself from her children, Michael and Jennifer, in her Brooklyn brownstone. Alexandra, who feels under siege, wants to die in her house, not go into assisted living, which her kids are pushing.
Enter son Chris (Stephen Spinella) of New Mexico, who shinnies up the maple tree to reach his mom through her second-floor window. He becomes the negotiator as mother and son, estranged for decades, do battle in her living room.
“I will set myself on fire!” she threatens, Zippo lighter in hand.
“I’ll bring the marshmallows,” he replies.
Casting the role of Alexandra for the critically acclaimed, six-week Washington run, Coble and director Smith, artistic director at Arena Stage, knew Parsons would be perfect for the part. Coble had just seen Parsons playing the hellacious drug-addled matriarch in the national tour of Tracy Letts’ vitriolic August: Osage County, in which the now 86-year-old ran up and down the stairs of the two-story set.
“We were talking about who could play this role and Estelle was at the top of the list,” Coble said. “I thought, ‘Wow, she could do this. She’s got the stamina and that sheer ferocious power that she could pull this off.’ ”
Parsons, who has said she wasn’t interested in playing sweet little old ladies, read the first six pages of Coble’s script and was on board.
The Oscar-winning actress, famous for her role as Blanche in the film Bonnie and Clyde as well as her gig as Mother Bev in the sitcom Roseanne, is now playing a 79-year-old whose body and mind are starting to fail her. Opposite her is two-time Tony winner Spinella, who originated the role of Prior in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika on Broadway.
An Associated Press review of the show Tuesday said, “Playwright Eric Coble presents the aging decay of the human mind and body as a necessary process replete with mordantly humorous and empathetic moments. He lightens the potentially depressing subject matter by providing plenty of comedic zingers to both Academy Award-winner Parsons — here powerful and ingratiating — and to her co-star, the equally skilled Stephen Spinella.”
In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood’s review said, “While the conversation occasionally strays into unprofitable byways, the play passes by breezily because Parsons is such fun to watch, the birdlike squawk in her distinctive voice rising and falling as Alexandra jousts with her son, showing few signs of the mental and physical fragility that have supposedly been of such concern.”
As Coble prepared for opening night Monday, he wrote cards to the play’s cast and crew, worked on what he was going to wear that night and saw friends who had come in from out of town for the big night.
“I’m trying to make some time to go down to the High Line park and walk that for a couple of hours to clear my head in the sunshine,” he said Monday morning.
Coble attended opening night with his wife, Carol Laursen, and 16-year-old daughter, Miranda. Before that, he was focusing on keeping quiet: “Take it all in. I don’t know that I’ll be doing this particular day ever again.”
Coble said the core inspiration for this mother-son story started with his neighbor.
“Her name was Lottie and she was an elderly woman who her children thought was no longer safe to stay in her home, and she vehemently disagreed with that,” the playwright said.
He imagined what would happen if the old woman took the situation to a desperate extreme, barricaded herself inside the house and even threatened to destroy it. The story built over two years, growing from Coble’s discussions with his grandparents, mother, in-laws, neighbors and older actors in the community.
Coble worked on small rewrites, “just a few words here and there,” up until a week before the opening. The Velocity of Autumn opened in time for Tony Award nominations, which will be announced April 29.
In the play, Alexandra and her son Chris, both artists, may be too much alike. Their connecting of the minds comes with a dramatic climax fraught with danger that has Broadway audiences cheering. That has been a welcome surprise for the creatives, Coble said.
The Velocity of Autumn’s title speaks to the speed of heading into the winter of our lives. Coble’s dialogue and imagery on the subject of aging is rich, especially Chris’ monologue about Navajo sand painting ceremonies in which participants create a work that is beautiful yet ephemeral, meant to blow away. Coble, who grew up in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, has friends who do such paintings.
“The fact that life is going to end and she [Alexandra] is not going to be herself, that all of us are going to stop being ourselves at some point, is part of the beauty, and there can be grace in that,” Coble said of the sand painting’s symbolism.
Coble, 44, said one of the best parts about reaching this Broadway pinnacle has been the support of the Northeast Ohio theater community, which has known him intimately as a local playwright for more than 20 years.
“Even the people who can’t be here physically, there has been such an outpouring of support from Cleveland … The fact that it has been so honest and so constant and so warm for the last couple of months about this, it is really touching,” he said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.