The Aging Radical’s Last Stand: Considering Alexandra in “The Velocity of Autumn,” Vera in “After The Revolution” and Jacob in “Awake and Sing”

Washington audiences have come to know the feisty communist octogenarian, Vera, in Amy Herzog’s After The Revolution at Theater J…

Nancy Robinette as Vera and Megan Anderson as Emma in "After The Revolution"

Nancy Robinette as Vera and Megan Anderson as Emma in “After The Revolution”

…and in Herzog’s follow up 4000 Miles (which appeared here in DC first, last spring, at Studio Theatre).

Tana Hicken and Grant Harrison in Studio Theatre’s production of "4000 Miles"

Tana Hicken and Grant Harrison in “4000 Miles”

Last night we took in Estelle Parson’s embodiment of the bomb-building 80-something year old, Alexandra, in Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn at Arena Stage. And we’ve just finished reading Clifford Odets’ iconic family play—the play that cements the central theme that runs through American dramatic literature; that the most political institution is, indeed, the family—in his 1935 Awake and Sing, as politics is woven into the fabric of the family and life-choices are inflected with political meaning. Eager to hear how our student subscribers took to Velocity and to detect the reverberations of Herzog’s play upon Coble’s.

Will Coble’s play make it to Broadway next? Earlier reviews are all 5-star enthusiastic. The Post was there a night after opening, together with us, so we’ll soon see what P. Marks says.  It’s a tough plot to pull off, no? Do we ever fully believe that Alexandra will blow herself up, her apartment, her Brooklyn city block, and perhaps the entire theater as well,  in a multiple Molotov Cocktail triggering? Are the pressures of the offstage siblings who urge that mom vacate the premises and agree to be checked into a nursing home sufficiently felt and clearly dramatized?  Stephen Spinella does his heroic best to make us feel that sibling conflict.  I’m eager to find out what others feel. There’s a master class of acting going on in this production, to be sure, not only from Parsons, but from the great Spinella as well. Eager to hear which moments specifically impressed.

the late Robert Prosky as Jacob in Zelda Fichandler's 2006 production of "Awake and Sing" at Arena Stage

The late Robert Prosky as Jacob in Zelda Fichandler’s 2006 production of “Awake and Sing” at Arena Stage

And finally, eager to hear what we make of the Alexandra-Vera-Jacob connection.  Let’s hear a little bit about Odets’ tragic octogenarian. He follows through, in a sense, where Alexandra only threatens… But his is a quieter despair. Whereas she is a loud, surprising (re)affirmation of life. Yes? No?



30 thoughts on “The Aging Radical’s Last Stand: Considering Alexandra in “The Velocity of Autumn,” Vera in “After The Revolution” and Jacob in “Awake and Sing”

  1. To me, “The Velocity of Autumn” was essentially perfect. Perhaps it was because the subject matter happened to closely align with philosophical areas that have long interested me (i.e., the inevitability of our mortality, the fragility of our physical selves, etc.), but I think that it was more than that. It was the first production that I have seen thus far in D.C. which I felt almost completely and effectively relayed peoples’ idiosyncrasies and the myriad, conflicting emotions that can arise, and thrive, concurrently in difficult familial situations. Examples of this, for me, came as Alexandra criticized Chris and in the next breath was fondly recollecting things that they used to do together, many years past. Or, as Chris struggled to explain why he had felt that he had to leave home, and then not come back, despite the fact that he still thought about and cared for his family in New York. It was more than just that though; these two people seemed to be angry at each other, and hurt at the same time, and yet still strangely trying to reconcile themselves to the other’s actions, attempting to understand things through the other’s eyes although they disagreed with them completely. And, despite the potentially depressing subject matter, the play was also genuinely funny. And it wasn’t funny in that it struggled to artificially create humorous situations or dialogue, but was funny in the way that everyday life can be funny, without intending to be, without trying to be. I wrote that I felt the play was essentially perfect, and I do, but that does not mean that I found it without flaw, but simply, for me at least, that the manifold strengths of the play easily overwhelm its flaws, make them inconsequential, and allow you, as the audience, to be carried away by the emotion and story.
    Comparatively speaking, although in each of the plays, “The Velocity of Autumn”, “Awake and Sing!”, and “After the Revolution”, there was an elderly character that played an important role, that role, and its centrality, varied interestingly from play to play. While in “The Velocity of Autumn” Alexandra is the main character, or at least one of two, in both of the other two plays her analogues, Jacob and Vera, seem to me to be more ancillary characters, although there are still quite relevant to the plays. Another interesting difference between these three characters was the place that each seemed to occupy in the life cycle. Whereas Alexandra seems to be struggling with accepting her old age, something that is central to the play, Vera and Jacob both seem beyond it, resigned to its inevitability. This is perhaps more true of Jacob than it is of Vera, as evidenced by his tragic, almost fatalistic end. Outside of these slight differences, however, I felt that all of these characters were truly pivotal to their respective plots, as quintessential examples of aging Americana, and that the plays would not, could not, be the same without them.

    • Like you, I found “The Velocity of Autumn” most appealing, perhaps because I felt it most embodied the method in which my family operates (we’re loud, we fight about things, but we always talk things out) and perhaps, like you, I related to Alexandra’s struggle. Although, I did notice some parallel’s in humor with Vera’s comments on never growing old to her granddaughter. To me, I didn’t feel that Vera had necessarily resigned herself, so much as accepted her reality– it simply didn’t seem to be a problem beyond her lack of hearing. I felt her age was not central to the play, or to her character. Jacob also made a very conscious choice to me and, of the three, perhaps he was the most resigned to his loss of life.
      I thought you really “hit the nail on the head” (excuse the cliche) on Velocity of Spring though!

    • I agree, the “philosophical areas,” such as, mortality, body and fragility, even the transcendence of the human mind and soul was paramount in this play. I believe that the play pivoted around all of the core ideologies that the everyday human struggles to deal with. As a 23 year old, this play really broadens your perspective of life and death. Even, to be free come in to question. Is freedom just physical, could it be more mental than physical, How to break free from the worldly tethers of secular ambitions and physical requirements? The concept of the tree, I feel should have been brought to life a little bit more, however there was so much philosophical juice exuding from the sprouting and changing leaves of longevity.

  2. What stood out to me in The Velocity of Autumn was something Alexandra said as she talked about paintings. As you get nearer to a painting, the textures, shapes and colors are clearer—some rough, some that don’t make sense on their own when removed from the scale of the entire picture. As you step back though, each individual line and shape blends together to make up the whole painting. I was drawn to this concept as I thought about the life of a human, and especially Alexandra and Chris’s lives. This scene that we were a part of as the audience is only a piece in the whole picture of these character’s stories—and I felt like Alexandra throughout the play moved from a place of seeing her story only in the present to seeing the larger picture. I enjoyed watching the transition take place for these characters—it was passionate and dramatic, full of hurt and anger, but yet entirely woven with love.
    As I read Awake and Singing, I actually saw more similarities between Bessie and Alexandra as they aged. While Jacob seemed to have accepted his place in life and society as an older gentleman, Bessie and Alexandra have both disengaged from the rest of the world as their bodies fail them and they feel the regret from the death of their dreams from when they were younger. Vera and Jacob, though, play a different sort of an active role in their respective families. Having learned from their pasts—for Vera, in the journey through Communism with Joe, and Jacob, in rejecting the opportunity of revolution, they each encourage the dreams of their younger family members, even when they do not always support the choices that are made (Emma and Ralph). The question I would ask between these two groups of people is: what in our lives cause us to feel the burden and regret of aging as Bessie and Alexandra did, and what allows us to learn from the mistakes and experiences of the past as it seems Jacob and Vera have?

  3. As I settled into my seat in the intimate Kreeger Theater of Arena Stage for a viewing of Eric Coble’s THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, I slowly started to realize that I was in for an unorthodox theater experience. The play’s running time was approximately an hour and thirty three minutes with no intermission. The program listed a cast of all but two actors, Estelle Parsons playing a 79-year-old grandmother named Alexandra and Stephen Spinella playing her estranged son Chris. I turned to my classmate and hastily asked, “Is this literally going to be just one long conversation?”

    Eric Coble indeed takes up the challenge of creating a coherent and interesting 90 minute dialogue with no intermission or scene breaks. But one only has to consider how many children have faced a similar situation (and the many more who will as the “baby boomer generation” retires) with an aging parent discontent with the loss of freedom to realize why the work is relatable and transcends a two-person dialogue. Alexandra is at an impasse with her children about where to spend her final years, an all too familiar issue when families deal with the enigmatic aging process, granted without the Molotov cocktails scattered around the family home.

    As a young person with parents significantly younger than Alexandra, I was torn with how to connect with her. The significantly older audience had an easy time laughing at her every one-liner that satirized physical pains, fleeting memories, and her relationship with her now older children. I, however, remained internally conflicted. Simply put, the fine process of aging is still foreign to this twenty-some. Throughout the play we see the toll age has taken on Alexandra. She has trouble remembering the trips to the Guggenheim with Chris and getting out of her armchair. For a young person, that is not always something endearing to see, especially when it is your own mother or father. Moreover, her initial cold attitude toward her son and her often annoying and fatalistic attachment to the idea of dying alone in her house made it rather easy to quickly villainize the old woman. As the play progressed, however, I realized who the real villain was: age. You could not help but empathize with the aging grandmother who brilliantly portrayed both the duality of fervent enthusiasm and fragility that characterizes life for all, even at times criticizing her son Chris and in the next breath nostalgically recollecting fond memories from his childhood. She twistedly tried to confine herself to her living room in the middle of the Bronx while searching for one last bit of the freedom that characterized her younger years and my heart had to go out to her by play’s end.

    This internal battle I experienced with the Alexandra character in THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN resembled in some respects the contemplation I experienced after reading AWAKE AND SING! albeit with a different conclusion. I feel that despite the tragic story of Odets’ octogenarian Jacob being a natural point of comparison with Alexandra and even Vera of Herzog’s AFTER THE REVOLUTION, I believe another Odets character is more analogous for my analysis and comparison regarding THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN. There too reins an emotional and exasperated woman in a New York household in Odets’ work just as in Coble’s. Bessie Berger is always occupied in arranging the affairs of her children, Ralph and Hennie and easily supersedes her ineffectual husband Myron. The villainous matriarch, contra to what Alexandra amounted to in my estimation, is described as a “shrewd judge of realistic qualities in people and in the sense of being able to gauge quickly their effectiveness.” Even after just a reading survey of the work, Bessie easily makes me feel as if I were in the same room as her, especially during her indignant and lyrical speeches on the social ills of the Depression-era. But, in earnest, I must say I don’t enjoy feeling as if Bessie and I were in the same room together. As better identifying with her children, I find her scheming manipulation of their relationships and affairs that often subverts the dreams and goals of the children themselves in the process very unsettling. At their core, Bessie, Vera, and Alexandra are symbolic humanizations of the unpleasant realities that imperfect people have to come to terms with in their short lives, whether it be living in poverty and desperation, coming to terms with your political and family past, or experiencing the final “autumn” years of one’s life.

  4. Alexandra in “The Velocity of Autumn” and Jacob in “Awake and Sing” seemed to have two extremely different mindset about what the role of an elder in society should be. On one hand, Jacob seemed to believe it was his duty to make room for the generations after himself. He essentially decides that he should sacrifice himself and his remaining life for the prosperity of his grandson. This is in stark contrast to the way Alexandra feels in her old age. Alexandra feels she finally is getting time for herself after giving so much of her time and energy to her kids. She has no intention of going off to a nursing home even if her kids feel it’s the right thing. Her kids feel it is the natural progression for them to begin to be the parents to their mother, as she grows older. Alexandra feels that she deserve the dignity and peace of being able to stay where she chooses at the end of her life. She feels that she has a right to her personal happiness after all she has given.
    Another prevailing similarity I saw between these older characters were the effects of getting older. Forgetting words and stories were significant portions of the characters of both Vera and Alexandra. Body aches and pains were also important as well as difficulty getting out of their seats. It is an interesting twist on human life that the time when a person has had the most time to build up their knowledge and wisdom, they are most incapable of expressing themselves to others. In many ways older humans are reduced to the abilities of children. This is especially heartbreaking because they know what it was to be able to move and express them and have independence. Children on the other hand have blissful ignorance. They do not yet know the fulfillment of independence and thus can enjoy being taken care of. They continually acquire more skills and abilities while older humans must lose them day-by-day.

    • I really liked how you explicated the ideological differences between Jacob and Alexandra, with one character, Jacob, essentially feeling that it was his time to leave the world to allow his grandson to have chances that he never did, and the other, Alexandra, wanting instead for her progeny to basically leave her alone so that she could do what she really wanted to in the twilight of her life. I thought that this difference between these characters’ outlooks was was very noteworthy and felt that it mirrored the attitudes of some older people who I have come in contact with. I also thought that your observation of the somewhat cruel paradox of old age was incredibly apt and very insightful; that, after a long life full of experiences, of figuring out exactly who you are, what you stand for, and what you want to say, you are left without the communication skills you once possessed, but often did not use. It added another dimension to the play for me that was not there before.

  5. Catalyst. Every story needs one and a good one often challenges at least one of the character’s way of life, their way of thinking, their being. The way the character works through the dilemma the writer so graciously threw at them aids in their development and discovery of who they ‘are’. Three plays, three characters, all face a catalyst—a dilemma which forces them to reevaluate their lives, their family and their identity. For Emma it is the betrayal of her family; for X it is the betrayal of herself; and for Ralph it is the betrayal of reality.
    Emma’s discovery of the betrayal of her family uproots her identity in several ways. First, it destroyed her support system and not only in the sense that her family provided support in their words and presence; but, in part because she was so closely linked to her family, she also lost her sense of self and her direction. Yet, it is this catalyst that allows herself to re-establish who she is; to reflect and grow and, one would hope, have a stronger sense of her own identity—a sense that isn’t so reliant upon her family but is adjusted to a new reality. Alexandra’s support system is also lost. On an obvious level, that support system is herself and she spend the entire play fighting for herself, not just with other members of her family but with her body and mind. That is to say, she’s fighting a civil war. Like Emma, there is a struggle to accept what she feels to be the loss of herself. The difference here is that while Emma needed to reestablish herself without her family; Alexandra needed the support of her family, and one particular member, to accept her new reality. For Ralph, the catalyst is, perhaps more subversive—certainly more subversive than Emma’s. It is, rather, a culmination of small events that strengthen his identity. He faces a struggle to “be something”, to simply establish himself. The entire story is, very much embedded in his frustration with his reality (like Alexandra’s frustration with hers—though with entirely different circumstances). For him, in some ways, the catalyst for change (though the other parts which lead to that catalyst are very important for building his character) comes in the very end of the play with the death of his grandfather. In a way, that very much matches the building nature of Alexandra’s interactions with Chris; with Emma it is the early betrayal of her family and the outcome of that conflict and for Ralph it is the events which set up for and lead up to his grandfather’s death.

    • Leah, I really like your point that everyone needs a catalyst in order to challenge herself, which can often lead to a person having a better understanding of who she is. I especially like what you say about Ralph’s catalyst being the death of his grandfather, which catapulted his desire to “be something.” I also believe that Ralph and Alexandra are rather similar in this regard. Although it was not death that served as Alexandra’s catalyst, it is also her catalyst that leads her to want to “be something”. One of my favorite moments in The Velocity of Autumn is when Alexandra is talking about how she used to be free, wandering everywhere but then she settled down to become a wife and a mother. I believe in doing this, Alexandra lost herself. One of my favorite quotes reads, “I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged.” I believe that this perfectly suits Alexandra. In my opinion, whether or not Alexandra was meant to be a mother is irrelevant, but I do believe that she was meant to be free. After receiving the unconditional support from her son, Chris, also searching to find himself, Alexandra is then able to find that inclination toward being free again. In a sense, at the end of the play, by allowing herself to no longer be caged into her house, she is also uncaging the part of herself that she lost when she lost her sense of freedom.

  6. After seeing After the Revolution last week at Theater J, the class had the opportunity to see The Velocity of Autumn at Arena Stage. The performances were quite different, as After the Revolution had multiple characters while The Velocity of Autumn only had two. Even with only two characters, I was just as emotionally impacted as I had been during After the Revolution. The dialogue between the mother, Alexandra, and her son, Chris, kept me entranced for over ninety minutes. Their love for one another is something many people envy and hope to share with their loved ones. After the Revolution also captured the strength of love, as Emma and her father were able to reconcile even after an issue that could have ended their relationship for good. The love between family members is something that is so often taken for granted in our world today, as we are surrounded with news about mass shootings, weapons, and corruption. At the end of the day, love is left without notice, as our world demands so much more from us.

    The two productions also share some similarities with the play, Awake and Sing. After seeing both After the Revolution and The Velocity of Autumn, I sat down to read the script from Awake and Sing. I immediately recognized the similarities, as all three plays included grandparent figures that were significant to the story line. However, I was struck even more by the love that is shown between the family members, particularly Ralph and his grandfather, Jacob. Shortly before the ending of Awake and Sing, Jacob falls from the roof of the family’s home. His death leads to deep discussion, as Jacob had willed his fortune to be given to Ralph upon his death. Ralph becomes troubled by the family arguments and announces his stance on the situation.

    Ralph: “Did Jake die for us to fight about nickels? No! ‘Awake and sing,’ he said. Right here he stood and said it. The night he died, I saw it like a thunderbolt! I saw he was dead and I was born!”

    Their relationship was enlightening, as Ralph gained great wisdom from his grandfather. However, Jacob also showed Ralph the importance of both loving and living. So many people take both of these abilities for granted; yet all three of these plays put these rare gifts in perspective. We all have such little time to live and not many moments that allow us to love. Every single one of these moments must be cherished, regardless of the circumstances.

    • Casey,

      I like how you tie love into your analysis! I think it plays such a pivotal role in not only Awake and Sing but in all of the plays. I think in all of the plays there is a certain reconciliation, and appreciation of one another that must take place in all of the families, in order to transform the families from being dysfunctional to functional as the plays progress. While a large part of transformation comes from communication, and understanding, I think a big part of it also comes from loving one another; and rightfully so since love is a key factor to making the institution of family work.

    • Casey,

      I really like this analysis which ties together love as a common theme for all three plays. It might be interesting to further explore the role that love plays in “After the Revolution,” looking specifically at the grandmother-granddaughter relationship. Clearly Vera and Emma care about each other, but that doesn’t mean that their interactions and conversations always go smoothly. Vera seems intent on clinging onto ideas of the past, while Emma is poised to forge ahead and decide her own beliefs and values, which is a source of tension. The end of the play is frustrating and heartbreaking, when Vera is seemingly unable to accept Emma’s renouncement of Joe Joseph. Despite these problems, the audience can see the bond between Emma and Vera just by how they interact.

      How is the relationship between Emma and Vera different (or similar) to the one between Chris and Alexandra? I think this might be an interesting question for classroom dicussion sometime.

  7. Arena Stage’s production of “The Velocity of Autumn,” written by Eric Coble and starring Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella, was touching and heartwarming to me. It tells of a time many people encounter in their lives—the moment children begin making decisions for their parents—making the plot relatable and drawing viewers in. The alcohol bottles left in the corners of the stage, in front of the curtain, piqued my curiosity and interest as soon as I walked in. After the curtain rose, I immediately noticed the splendidly detailed and realistic set design. And once Christopher and Alexandra began to move and speak, I realized the convincing, realistic nature of their acting. The movements seemed fluid and natural, and the humor was intelligent and refreshing. I felt a real connection to the characters and their situation, even though it was one I have not encountered before.

    As enamored as I was by the play, there was a significant degree of heartache involved as well, embodied in a push and pull throughout the play that left my head spinning. Alexandra was not pleased initially when her prodigal son returned, because she wanted to be left alone. Chris forced himself into her home, standing his ground. As the play continues, every time Alexandra seems to enjoy her son’s company and asks him to stay, he refuses, and every time Chris gets more open and comfortable, Alexandra asks him to leave. A personal familiarity with continuous painful reversals, where the two people involved are always in disagreement by switching positions, and both are too stubborn to give in to each other, left my heart aching.

    Additionally, the level of depression in both characters, and Chris’ storytelling about the cyclist and the woman who held her, nearly brought me to tears. Although I have never had that experience, through Chris’ words, I almost felt as though I was there, and that I felt their sadness. This idea of an impactful death is also seen in Odets’ “Awake and Sing,” in which the grandfather, Jacob, takes his own life to provide for his family. In this play, the death of the cyclist led to Chris’ decision to reunite with his mother and reform his family. In both, a death leads to the betterment of the family unit.

    “Awake and Sing” is largely political, as is Herzog’s “After the Revolution.” “The Velocity of Autumn,” on the other hand, is not. All three plays, however, focus on the family and relationships. In each, there is an elderly character who faces great change. Jacob resigns himself to his fate, ending his life for his children. Vera chooses to stay loyal her beliefs regarding her late husband. And Alexandra, again differing from the calm acceptance of the other two elderly characters, struggles against her oncoming age by barricading herself in with explosives. In the end though, she leaves her house, reunited with her son, leaving her problems for another day.

    • Anna, I felt the same way about the description of the cyclist. It was so interesting how a story within a story brought out so much emotion in the audience. The description was so vivid, yet so painful; I felt like the production was actually about the cyclist. Chris’s story of the cyclist stuck with me throughout the production. His storytelling also added dimension to his character, as it showed him as a person simply searching for an opportunity to make a difference. The issue of depression also played a large role in the play, as it connected with the growing interest in and concern for mental illness. The problem is very real, and both Chris and Alexandra gave a face to the disease.

    • Hi Anna,

      Great critique of the great! The complex mother and son relationship in the play “Velocity of Autumn” is indeed very interesting. The way that they both want each other’s comfort and company, yet they both also fear that the other person may not accept them for who they are is both frustrating and entertaining for the audience. As we watch their tug-o-war relationship, we can also feel a sense of warmth as the two characters occasionally bring up mutual memories and share the same sense of humor. So even though on the surface, there seems to be a conflict between the two characters as they argue throughout the play; however, deep down, they are still a tightly knit family. It is no wonder that at the end of the play, the son is able to convince his mother to finally walk out from her living room and experience freedom again.

    • Hey Anna, I agree with a lot of what you have said here in your comment. One thing I would have to disagree with on a pretty low level your comment the “The Velocity of Autumn” is not a political play. As a women’s studies major, I have been taught that the personal is, in fact, political. While the play is certainly not political in the same sense as the other two plays, it does give us some blatant insight into the way our country works and the belief systems that are inherent in our day-to-day lives. We can see that the elderly are often ostracized and overpowered. When Alexandra denied that her son and daughter had power of attorney, we were able to see a glimmer of how rights and authority is distributed in our country. While we like to say that every citizen has rights, we can clearly see that the elderly are often considered unable to make their own choices and lose those rights to others late in life.

  8. It’s hard to walk out of Eric Coble’s “The Velocity of Autumn” without thinking about where you currently fall in life. Not fall like down the stairs or the season, but fall like where you are in your life, pinpointed on a timeline. Alexandra, played by Estelle Parsons, and her son Chris, played by Stephen Spinella, purposefully address the big concept of age from every perspective. From the laughable to the tender to the powerful moments, “The Velocity of Autumn” captures age at its best and worst and everywhere in between. Personally, when I think of age, I think in tree ring lines. Like age, they are measured and experienced. Tree ring lines are wise, they know the past and have grown out of it to become thicker and taller in size. I couldn’t help but make this connection to the three aged characters, Vera in “After the Revolution”, Jacob in “Awake and Sing!” and Alexandra in “The Velocity of Autumn”. For Jacob, he’s very experienced from his age. He’s observed injustice and has a clear set of ideals from these observations although he hasn’t taken much action to uphold them. For Vera, her honesty and often bluntness reflect the authority she holds as a wise, experienced grandmother in her family. For Alexandra, age is something she struggles to accept, her tree lines blur together, often forgetting peoples names and memories shared with her son. Yet, she refuses to give up on moving and growing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that these older characters aren’t really that radical as people (besides the fact that Alexandra is housing a small explosives unit), they are have just been weathered and shaped by the environments they’ve grown up in. It’s sort of like the way tree lines show the past droughts and rainy seasons, these characters know what it’s like to live based on their past experiences. They’ve lived long fruitful lives, and they have their own perspectives on how the world works. So in my opinion, they aren’t that radical, they’re just not conforming to the cute-little-old-person-who-lives-next-door-and-hands-out-candy stereotype. I like this depiction of older characters in these plays, they are bold, strong, often weak, and honest characters who have the years under their belt to live how they want.

    • Adam, I appreciate the metaphor you used to connect these characters. I especially agree with your comment about Alexandra’s character. I, too, admire her fortitude and unwillingness to give up on the life that she created for herself. She has been weathered by the physical and emotional changes that naturally come with aging, and although her family attempts to control the setting of her final years of life, she is not willing to let them decide this for her. Although it is difficult for me to fully understand what it is like to come to the point where you are ready to take your own life, I think there is a certain bravery associated with being unafraid of death. The desire to die is so antithetical to our experience as human beings, as everything about our genetic coding equips us to survive, reproduce and avoid death for as long as possible. Although the energy of the play was still very light, and the attempted bombing was more ridiculous and comical than dark, serious and suicidal—I still think of Alexandra as brave for daring to take her life before allowing it to be controlled by others.

    • Adam, I liked the way you compared these characters’ lives to tree rings. In the same way that a tree’s growth is dependent on the environment it lives in and a number of factors within that environment–soil fertility, rainfall, sunshine, etc.–a human’s growth is dependent on the experiences and environments he or she weathers. Your line, “It’s sort of like the way tree lines show the past droughts and rainy seasons”–each old character in their story reflect distinct periods in their lives of dreams enjoyed or dreams shattered and rich bonds with family members or strained ones.

  9. The Velocity of Autumn, a play artistically directed by Molly Smith and featuring Estelle Parsons touches on multitude of themes, from finding oneself, to learning how to cope with growing old, to dealing with the struggles of the familial bond. In fact, it seems as though the struggles of the familial bond is a prominent theme in not only the Velocity of Autumn, but also After the Revolution and Awake and Sing.

    In the Velocity of Autumn, the familial bond is tested when Chris returns to his mother’s home after being away for over 20 years, in an effort to reason with his mother’s pyromania. After witnessing a crash and not actively responding, Chris feels as though he’s missed his chance at a purpose, and wants to not miss the chance to help his mother. In After the Revolution, the familial bond is tested when Emma discovers a dark secret about her grandfather’s espionage and treason during the Cold War. The relationship between her and her father is then tested, as she must learn to forgive him and to tolerate his strong communist views. In Awake and Sing, this familial bond is tested as the tension-filled Berger family continuously takes out their emotions on one another.

    In each of these plays, although it is a family member that causes the protagonist turmoil, it is also a family member, along with the will of the protagonist, who catapults a freeing resolution for the protagonist. In the Velocity of Autumn, Alexandra is burdened by her children’s attempt to put her in a nursing home, thus hindering her “free” spirit personality. However, with the help of her youngest son, Chris, Alexandra ultimately is able to leave the house. In doing so, Alexandra is able to visit the Guggenheim, regaining a freedom that she had previously lost. In After the Revolution, Emma becomes angry with her father for keeping her grandfather’s secrets of treason from her, thus causing her to lose trust in him. Through the aid of her sister and stepmother, Emma visits her dad and is able to finally understand why he chose to keep a secret from her. In the end, Emma also gains a sense of freedom as she is no longer motivated by the person her father wants her to be, but instead can be free. In Awake and Sing, there are several familial clashes as the strong-willing mother, Bessie, rules the house with an iron fist. However, as relevant to each of the plays, a main character, Ralph is able to free himself from her hindering grasp through the inspiration of his grandfather, Jacob.

    Each of the characters, Alexandra, Emma, and Ralph are able to find a sense of freedom from their newfound resolve. These plays display the resilience of the familial bond, because just as our families can break us down, our families are also there to build us up.

    • There is one point you make that really made me think—the idea that Alexandra is a free spirit, but she resists imposition on her freedom by barricading herself in her house and refusing to leave. It seems a little counter-intuitive, and I would argue that she is held down and loses either way. After realizing that, it makes her decision at the end to leave more significant. She is not only physically leaving and becoming free of her house, but she also frees herself because it was up to her. Her actions are not in response to anyone else (in contrast to locking herself in her house because her children and the police are trying to get in), and it reverts her back a little to her earlier, freer, younger days.

  10. “The Velocity of Autumn” is by far one of my most favorite plays that I have ever encountered. It was funny; it was dramatic; and it was, above all else, inspiring and deep. But what makes it so compelling to me is that it is seemingly impossible to explain it to someone without recounting every single detail and every single conversation that is shared between the two lone characters Alexandra and Christopher. Yet I find myself explaining it to friends and family alike as a 2.5 hour roller coaster ride of emotions that has all to do with parent-child relationships, old age, and independence. Even so, this description hardly does the play justice. Capturing these real moments that are often ignored is difficult to do, and I thought Eric Coble (the author) and Molly Smith (the artistic director) did an amazing job bringing this story to life.

    To be honest though, I feel as though this story resonates with me as strongly as it does because of the shifting dynamics between my mother and myself. As the baby of the family, my role has changed quite significantly since I left for college 3 years ago. As of lately, I have felt responsible for helping my mother out, and I feel as though she has become more fragile. Although my mother may enjoy the perks of being waited on or sending me to do her errands, I know that eventually she will begin to miss those freedoms as she gets older. My mother is very much an independent woman, much like Alexandra was, and it is becoming increasingly more important for me to be able to take care of her when she needs me.

    In this respect, I understand Alexandra’s struggle and Christopher’s desire to help his mother. As it was said in the play, children have natural instincts to take care of their parents. However, as was also said in the play, sometimes parents don’t want their children’s help. Alexandra told Chris that she wanted to be alone and the she had lost herself. Moreover, she had said that she lost her truth. As for any child I can imagine that hearing something like that from your parent is quite devastating. But, perhaps, it may be no more devastating than to see your parents in denial of their situation. It is upon this particular sentiment that I begin to reflect on last week’s show at Theater J, “After the Revolution.” Vera, the grandmother in the play, is unable to alter her views about her late husband and his acts of espionage following WWII. To some extent, she is trapped in the past unable to recognize or move past events that happened in her youth. It’s the classic tale of “grandma/grandpa is stuck in their ways” (i.e., they are stubborn). It’s on this topic that I wonder if being honest or blissfully ignorant of old age is best.

    Comparatively, Vera’s passion kept her from feeling senile and lost. She had something to uphold and live for. Conversely, in “The Velocity of Autumn,” Alexandra speaks of her waning abilities and inability to continue painting. She had lost almost all of the things that brought her happiness. As a result, Alexandra’s outlook on life was much more bleak and grim than Vera’s. But, at the end of “The Velocity of Autumn,” Alexandra had found a new passion in her relationship with her estranged son Chris. He had given her something new to live for and look forward to. As such, it seemed as though she accepted her old age and was able to carry on the next chapter of her life instead of being blissfully ignorant and trapped in her past.

    • Dominique,

      I loved your personal relationship to the play, and I think that it speaks to a larger theme throughout the play. This theme being relation: family relations, relations between strangers and friends, and even relation to age. I think this is ability for everyone to relate is what makes this play so brilliant and what makes this place so inherently human. We all are daughters and sons of mothers, fathers, guardians, and we all have relations with those who have shaped our lives so strongly. These ties to others as time goes by change both for worse and for better, which is a difficult concept to deal with. I think your personal relationship with your mom reflects this idea of the play, that relationships change and we too change with them. These notions are difficult to wrap our heads around, especially for people our age, but such change in relationships is both funny, devastating, adorable, and every adjective in the dictionary. It’s all encompassing, and it’s something we all face. Thank you for portraying that.

  11. Upon being charged with the task of comparing three very distinct and exceptional plays, After the Revolution, The Velocity of Autumn and Awake and Sing I immediately thought of a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Half of a Yellow Sun”, where protagonist Olanna observes a collection of people and and questions “why they were all strangers who shared the same last name”. Occasional -and sometimes common- discord amongst family members is almost part-in-parcel to the institution of family as a whole. That premise -cacophonous family structures- was prevalent in all 3 of the plays we are comparing. In After the Revolution conflict arises between Emma Joseph and her father Ben, when Emma discovers that the legacy of her late grandfather is actually not as noble and honorable as she was led to believe, but is actually in fact tainted. Feeling betrayed, hurt, and angry Emma’s world is essentially thrown off balance as she realizes that her family -with whom she was extremely close- has kept such secrets from her, and the lies almost cause an end to the great relationship Emma shared with her father. Conflict amongst family can also be seen in The Velocity of Autumn. Issues such as estrangement, resentment and growing pains are all confronted when Chris returns home to the Bronx -after 20 years- to discover his mother Alexandra barricaded in her apartment amidst Molotov cocktails. We discover that octogenarian Alexandra harbors resentment and anger as old age begins to take a toll on her memory and physical abilities. While Alexandra has dedicated her life to raising her children and now simply wants to be able to ride out her wave of age in her own home, her children want her to live in a nursing home. Disagreements ensue as Alexandra has to grapple with her children want to take on the role of essentially becoming Alexandra’s parents -taking care of her for a change- as old age naturally prompts recessive, hindering behaviors. The issue of estrangement is also capitalized as we learn that Chris has been away from home and his family for 20 years. There is a constant tug-of-war of attitudes as we seen Alexandra chastise Chris one minute, then almost immediately, reflect on the nostalgia of his child and the fond memories they shared. Finally, in Awake and Sing, there is constant disagreement amongst the family -especially as mother Bessie attempts to alter the will of her children in an attempt to have their actions align with her wishes. As contention runs rampant in all of these plays, as is natural when dealing with the family, reconciliation is also inevitable in each of the plays. In After the Revolution, Emma manages to confront her father and then discovers that while she still does not necessarily agree with the ethos of her grandfather, she still does respect his legacy as a whole, and is able to forgive her father. In Velocity of Autumn Chris returns to his mother in an attempt to be there for her in her old age, after missing so much of her life by distancing himself physically and mentally from her and his siblings. In Awake and SIng, the elderly Jacob sacrifices himself in order to take care of his struggling, disharmonious family, while simultaneously allowing his grandson Ralph to recognize his ambitions, and break free from the dominance of his mother Bessie. All of these plays highlight that while difference of ethos, beliefs and behaviors are intrinsically human and therefore scatter all human institutions -especially the family – the family as an institution is also peppered in love and respect, that makes reconciliation and civility possible; even when betrayal, anger and resentment are there to try and combat it.

  12. For me, The Velocity of Autumn conjured a list of emotions, ranging from frustration to sadness. I was very empathetic towards the main character, Alexandra, played by Estelle Parsons, who struggled with the inevitable, ever evolving process of aging, and the physical and mental changes that come with it. Alexandra was witty, comedic, blunt, and honest. She seemed hurt by her children’s inability to understand and empathize with her experience as an elderly person. There were moments where Alexandra’s son, Chris, played by Stephen Spinella, seemed impatient and concerned about the non sequiturs constantly interjected in Alexandra’s conversation, causing the questioning of her sanity.

    Her mind, naturally worn with the passing of time, was a point of concern, and justification for her moving to a retirement home. So many of us seem to have this fear of the mental state of elderly people. We fear their ability to remain self-autonomous. We also seem to negate their wisdom if their memory is a bit foggy or if, perhaps they cannot remember simple things like names. We are so quick to label them crazy, irrational, and incapable of functioning on their own—as if they have not spent decades successfully navigating a world that is still new and foreign for many of us.

    My defense of Alexandra’s sanity should not be confused with support for her attempt to blow up her neighborhood with Molotov cocktails. However, I think this action was done in desperation to maintain the life with which she was so familiar. She seemed to think even death would be better than being sent to a home, an event that would rob her of her independence in every way possible.

    Alexandra associated this potential death with freedom—uninhibited, autonomous, ailment-free freedom. She seemed trapped in an undesired reality. Bessie, from the Clifford Odet’s Awake and Sing!, also seemed trapped in a Depression-ridden, unpleasant reality, forced to play mother and father for her dependent family. Although Bessie’s character was flawed in many ways, she was similarly trapped in what seemed such an unpleasant reality. When considering Vera’s character from After the Revolution, I do not feel like she was at all trapped—or helpless in any way. She had been weathered by unfortunate circumstances such as the death of her husband, and facing the never-ending contention caused by being a member of the Communist Party, but she seemed content with her life, and fully capable of changing any undesired aspects of it. Alexandra, a victim of her questioned sanity, and Bessie, a victim of poverty, do not seem to possess the same freedom Vera experiences.

  13. In “The Velocity of Autumn”, Estelle Parson was a truly phenomenal actor. It is rare to find someone that can cast his or her emotion onto the audience as well as she did. I truly felt each up and down Alexandra went through during the play and I also felt sorry for her at the same time. I think that is another testament to Estelle’s amazing performance, because it is often difficult to get an audience to feel empathic towards a character in such a short amount of time. When comparing her to the character Jacob in “Awake and Sing”, I find that I did not feel the same sympathy towards Jacob. During “Awake and Sing”, I just thought of him as the senile grandfather. While Alexandra could have also been characterized as senile, I instead interpreted her emotion as confusion and sadness. Alexandra was trying to fight her old age and understand the changes to her body; Jacob simply allowed himself to age, while continuing to voice his option on the corruption of capitalist societies. It was much easier to ignore the internal conflict Jacob was experiencing because of the other conflicts simultaneously occurring in “Awake and Sing”. I felt more depressed about Alexandra’s mental state than I did about Jacob actually committing suicide. This is most likely due to the differing focuses of the two plays.
    “The Velocity of Autumn” was especially emotional for me, because I cannot imagine how miserable a person must be to consider killing him or herself. Even though Jacob actually goes through with it in “Awake and Sing”, it felt like a larger issue in “The Velocity of Autumn” because it was a constant theme during the play. The audience also does not see the emotion behind Jacob’s choice, while we see Alexandra’s feelings throughout the production. As death as been a prominent issue in my life for the past few weeks, it was jarring to see someone who no longer wanted to live. It is a foreign concept to me, as I generally see death as something to fear. I find it hard to comprehend an emotional state where death appears to be the best option. It has caused me to contemplate Alexandra and “The Velocity of Autumn” since the show on Thursday. While I have not come up with any conclusions, it has forced me to realize that death is a very complicated idea and people rarely view it in the same light.

    • Katy,

      I absolutely agree with your insight regarding Estelle Parson’s quick buildup of a rapport with the audience. In such a short amount of time, you could not help but empathize with her even as she fatalistically threatened to blow up herself and the entire block. Your comparison of Alexandra and Jacob interested me too. Perhaps Jacob’s struggle—despite it amounting to a more tragic end—was done a disservice as it was a part of a wider range of conflicts and familial tensions; Alexandra had the entire stage to herself which served as a forum to closely observe her every move, dissect her every emotion. Nevertheless, death and aging remain a vivid and complicated fact of life and the essence of theater and these two dramas are to help audience come to terms with these complicated facts and hold up a mirror for us all so we can reflect on life.

  14. Estelle Parson in The Velocity of Autumn reminded me a lot of a 2001 named Mulholland Drive, by David Lynch. When watching the play, I could not help but to look at Chris’s life through the eyes of film director David Lynch. I would even argue that the playwright alluded to a monumental scene in the movie Mulholland Drive. Chris was speaking to his mother Alexandra (his mother) while discussing his adventures, and then Chris said, “SILENCIO!” The protagonist in Mulholland Drive was an artsy aspiring actress who left Deep River town to Hollywood. She was running away from her past and went through deep suicidal depression after her girlfriend broke it off with her to stay in a traditional relationship with a man. In the film, there were hints that the protagonist (Betty) had issues with her parents and ran away from home to chase her dreams, never having a sense of home. The characters are similar to me, both suffering from an empty heart and voids of stability. Chris “just wants to be free.”
    In all of the plays thus far, there has always been present an older grandparent like character that speaks to aging sensibilities and brings up the repressed topic of death. I also look around in the crowd of the plays and see that there is a tendency that the audience is primarily of an older generation in which those sensibilities could assuredly speak to. It is beautiful to see the range to which Alexandra is dealing with aging–an undeniable process in the circle of life.
    In a class once offered at the University of California at Berkeley titled Place versus Space, student looked at what turns an empty or emotionless place into a personal space of identity and recognition. In this play, Alexandra had trapped herself, literally, in the only place where her identity seemed valid. She felt as though the world was moving past her not with her. She felt alien as if her age had put her on the coldest dwarf planet Pluto. To open the door meant so much more to her than it would contemporary citizens of New York. To open the door meant confronting herself, confronting, not a different identity, but a developing one.
    Chris’s character brought beauty back into his mother, with her flowery dress complimenting the longstanding, resilient tree to which she had so much pride and respect for. Chris reminded her that what she sees changing in the world is has ephemeral meaning, and reminds her of the continuous meanings of beauty and art.

  15. In the past two weeks, I am able to explore and compare how different characters in three different plays confront reality and deal with pain. In the two-person play “Velocity of Autumn,” the mother barricades herself in the living room, refusing to talk or see anyone. It is ironic that even though the play is entirely set in the living room, much of the conversation between the mother and son is about travelling the world and freedom. As she repeatedly cries that “I am loosing me,” I am able to vividly feel her resentment towards reality as she watches her body and mind slowly deteriorate day by day. Throughout the play, the mother painfully tells her story of battling old age and amnesia. I am able to picture vividly the her transformation from an independent and inspirational woman to a frail old lady who gets lost going to the supermarket and cannot even remember her own paintings. She fears going outside because it reminds her of the reality of her old age. As she confines herself in the living room, it is her fear of confronting reality that took away her freedom. However, at the end of the play, she is able to finally walk out of her room with his son, which can be seen as a symbolic gesture of walking towards freedom.

    On the other hand, when imprisoned by the preexistent challenges that cannot be easily changed such as low social class, grandfather Jacob from “Awake and Sing!” chose to suicide. His death was sudden and very thrilling, but his suicide was not a result of fear. It was his way of prompting his grandchildren to“be something! Make your life something good… Go out and fight so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills.”

    In the play “After the Revolution,” the protagonist Emma also experience hardship confronting the truth as she discovers that her grandfather used to be a spy during the war instead of a hero that withstood unfair trials. The news completely inverted her ideology. It also placed her in a moral dilemma, as she does not know whether she should reveal the truth to the public. Similar to the mother from “Velocity of Autumn,” Emma also starts to confine herself in her room, refusing to speak to her family and donors in the foundation. But in the end, she realizes that she must face reality by revealing the truth.

  16. I saw “The Velocity of Autumn” at Arena stage, a play which explores themes of aging, relationships, and the search for meaning and purpose. Estelle Parsons plays Alexandra, an elderly grandmother who has somewhat lost touch with reality and is threatening to blow up her house. Stephen Spinella plays Chris, her aging son who tries to talk sense and reason with her. After failed attempt after failed attempt to connect with her, he finally breaks through when he reminds of her the good times shared in the past, like when they would visit museums together. The more they talk, the more we as an audience learn about the struggles, ambitions, and lives of both Alexandra and Chris.

    This play struck a particular chord with me, as I was able to relate to the experience of trying to talk and connect with an older person whose personality has been seemingly changed by aging. I related to the exasperation and pain Chris expressed when dealing with Alexandra.

    Beyond the themes of aging and struggling with getting older, however, “The Velocity of Autumn” explores an even more fundamental question: “How can we find meaning and purpose in our lives?” For Alexandra, who has come to associate her home with who she is as a person, feels that moving out of her house would be a resignation of her life. And Chris, who we learn has had trouble with both employment and relationships in his life, seems to be a man with little to no direction.

    “Velocity of Autumn” started out as a witty barrage of insults (mostly being delivered by Alexandra), but developed into a heartwarming story of a mother and a son finding love for each other at a most unexpected time. “Awake & Sing!” by Clifford Odets explores some of these same questions of meaning through the lens of the Bergers, a lower class Jewish family from the Bronx. Bessie, the elderly mother, shows care and affection for her children by trying to control and dominate every aspect of their lives, down to their potential marriages. Both Alexandra and Bessie struggle with this idea of being autonomous and being in command of their lives and destinies. Alexandra seeks to find this control by going to a last resort, threaten to blow up her house with explosives effort, whereas Bessie seeks to establish herself by influencing the lives of her children. At the end of each play, we can see beyond the façade of these two characters, and understand that their seemingly selfish actions are motivated in part by desperation in their search for meaning and purpose, and in part by love of their families.

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