The Velocity of Autumn, by Eric Coble. Directed by David Andrew Snider. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Oliver Wadsworth as Chris, Christine Decker as Alexandra; photo: Sara Kelly
". . .well-intentioned but mis-directed children. . ."
Oliver Wadsworth; photo: Sara Kelly
For a play that lets you laugh a lot it is an unexpected thrill to hear the two characters discuss the "embodiment of infinity" even if it only refers to a child's costume. And when it is the child who creates this physical illusion it is certainly not an unexpected fascination in finding his mother bedecking their Brooklyn brownstone with Molotov cocktails. Chris, the son of painter Alexandra, comes home after twenty years to find the door barred to him, to everyone in fact, and has to make his way into the family manse by climbing a tree that had been saved from the axe by his mother who has barricaded herself inside. Chris's brother and sister believe that Mom has gone nuts and they've implored baby brother to come home from New Mexico to woo her out of the house and into a "facility" of some sort where she can be looked after in her declining years. The problem with this is that Alexandra's declining years are hitting a new high point, only in directions her family never anticipated.
Eric Coble's play, "The Velocity of Autumn" is being given a knock-out production by the people at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York. Directed by Davd Andrew Snider the two actors playing this odd and dysfunctional family, Christine Decker and Oliver Wadsworth, are at the top of their game. That these two professionals who live in the region, have never worked together before seems so unlikely for their on-stage chemistry burns so hot you an almost hear the stinging synapses between their brains.
Decker brandishes a lighter and carries a bottle of developing fluid capped with a scarf for about forty percent of the play. Defending her rights to live and die in her own home in her own way, Alexandra is determined to show the independence she has always valued highly. Decker plays her strengths with an ugliness that is frightening, engaging and hilarious, all at the same time. Coming off a series of strong roles including ego-maniacal Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie" and erotic Princess Puffer in "...Edwin Drood," this actress now adds the element of creative madness to her collection of oddball characteristics. We want to dislike her so much, but we can't because it is so clear why she has chosen to protect her human dignity.
Maintaining her lack of emotional availability, but breaking that to show a deeper, more concerned motherly side, Decker allows her body to portray weakness while keeping her face, hands and voice strong and violent. The visual dichotomy is exactly right for this complex woman she plays here and she does it so naturally that it is a wonder to behold.
As her displaced son, a true fish-out-of-water man in his forties, Wadsworth does the one thing that more actors need to learn: he listens. Whenever Alexandra is speaking, Chris listens intently. He reacts to every phrase, every word, his face altering with his understanding of what she is telling him. Watching this actor is a lesson in how to live in the world successfully. In a small theater where the audience is just about one foot away, his eyes never leave Decker or the tree he climbed, or the room they are in; we are not in the equation for either of these actors. Chris is not the most sensitive man and Wadsworth shows us what lies underneath the anger and passivity that alternately possess this character. In his talented hands a human being is born on the stage, not just a written character whose principal function is to pull the play's message out of Decker's character.
Christine Decker; photo: Sara Kelly
Oliver Wadsworth, Christine Decker; photo: Sara Kelly
And thank goodness for tenderness. When the close and tender moments in the play are realized by these two, it is hard to hold back the tears. In a contest between strong adversaries there is usually a winner, but this time around even the worst, off-stage characters realize a win. Snider has pulled off the unexpected here and we almost expect the brother and sister, who do not appear in the play and aren't even heard on the many telephone calls they make, to come on and take a bow.
Snider's production is beautifully designed thanks to Darcy May's excellent set and Sherry Recinella's ideal costumes. Calvin Anderson has done a nice job lighting the play, but I could have wished for a sunset or something outside the window to show the passing of time. The eighty-eight minute one-act flies by because these people are so interesting and are being played by folks who know how to make them live for us. The play is a rare treat and needs to be appreciated by as many as can fit into the small blackbox theater in upstate New York.
The Velocity of Autumn plays at the Freight Depot Theatre at Hubbard Hall, 25 East Main Street, Cambridge, NY, through March 11. For information and tickets go to their website at hubbardhall.org or call the box office at 518-677-2495.