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Exclusive: Estelle Parsons talks new Broadway show 'The Velocity of Autumn'

Producer Larry Kaye, playwright Eric Coble, director Molly Smith, actress Estelle Parsons, actor Stephen Spinella and producer Van Dean attend the press preview for 'The Velocity of Autumn' at Sardi's on March 3, 2014 in New York City
Producer Larry Kaye, playwright Eric Coble, director Molly Smith, actress Estelle Parsons, actor Stephen Spinella and producer Van Dean attend the press preview for 'The Velocity of Autumn' at Sardi's on March 3, 2014 in New York City
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Alexandra, a 79-year-old painter, barricades herself into her Brooklyn brownstone using deadly explosives. Why? Her adult children feel that the time has come for her to move into assisted living. Alexandra disagrees. The unexpected arrival of her estranged son, Chris, may (or may not) change the aging artist’s mind. Thus begins the two-man pas de deux that is writer Eric Coble’s new play "The Velocity of Autumn," which makes its Broadway debut on April 1 at the Booth Theatre. On Monday, March 3, Coble joined the play’s Director Molly Smith, as well as lead actors, Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons (as Alexandra) and Tony Award winner Stephen Spinella (as Chris) for a press introduction at Theatre District restaurant Sardi’s. had the chance to speak with this creative team responsible for the much-anticipated "Velocity of Autumn." Check out our exclusive interviews below!

What attracted you to this script in the first place?

Estelle Parsons: She’s so feisty, this woman [her character, Alexandra]. Most women in real life are docile—except now, younger generations—but certainly the generation of this woman, and the plays I get to read about old ladies. You know, I played a woman who was 100 in a cabin in the Appalachians, but that’s a little different—you know, she took care of herself. That’s not a woman who’s going to blow up a brownstone in Brooklyn, and is serious about it, too. I think the audience realizes it’s serious because they get very involved in what’s going on and whether it’s really going to get blown up before the play is over.

Why do you think Alexandra is so resistant to the idea of moving out of her apartment, and the idea of assisted living in general?

Estelle Parsons: I think she’s completely in denial about being old. I think she still thinks she’s capable of functioning, and she’s very different from me, or any actor, in that she’s happy alone. She works alone; you know, actors work with people, but she’s a painter, and they essentially work alone. It’s like writing—I can’t bear it because you’re alone! She is basically a loner, and she’s traveled all over the world alone, and she’s also been very independent most of her life except for those years when she married this guy and brought up her kids. […] I don’t think she really knows how old she is until the end. But through the play she begins to realize it, through him [Chris] and through talking to herself mostly. I think she is a person who has to convince herself of things—nobody else can convince her of things, which is probably true of loners. They’re very dependent on themselves and their own thoughts.

Obviously you have an amazing body of work that you’ve accumulated over the years. Do you think that what you look for now in a character is different from what interested you several years or decades ago?

Estelle Parsons: No, I don’t. I’ve always loved really bouncy, brash women. […] I love parts like that—women that are a little off the grid in some way, and this woman [Alexandra] is. But I don’t think this woman is a real-life person. I think this play is bigger than real life, and it’s bigger than comedy in a way. I think it’s very, very funny.

Your character is a prodigal son of sorts who returns home to help his siblings deal with their mother’s situation. Why has he been estranged from the family for so long? Is that something we find out over the course of the show?

Stephen Spinella: It’s the kind of thing that’s not spelled out; it’s something that you can put together. I think that she’s [Alexandra] a very strong personality, and he needed to get out from under that in order to discover who he is, and to become who he is. I think the hard part about Chris is that he never really succeeds—he never comes to a place with himself that feels strong or comfortable. He never finds his niche in the world, and he’s a little aimless. He doesn’t really know what to do with himself. He’s an artist who is talented, but he never really found his niche. […] A terrible thing happens to him shortly before he gets the phone call about his mom, and he tries to be in at least some way the person he thought he was. So he comes back for these dubious reasons. […] The play never really lays anything out; they grapples with the issues of what to do as people start to descend into dementia. […] The play doesn’t try to answer any questions, it just poses the problems and has these two people struggle with the issues. I think ultimately what happens is we all sort of walk out of the theater thinking about those particular issues in our own terms.

What are your thoughts on those issues? How would you deal if faced with a similar situation?

Stephen Spinella: My mom had dementia that became increasingly acute in the early aughts, and we spent a certain amount of time finding nursing homes and had to switch them because the care wasn’t good, and trying to follow her desires and where she wanted to be. […] It was arduous, and really painful. There’s this sort of this low-grade horror about, you know, you do feel in a weird way like you’re abandoning your parent to people you don’t really know. And we had one bad experience in a nursing home she was in where the care wasn’t good, so we had to get her out of there. […] It’s so complicated, and the play is a very early stage of that. She’s not even convinced that what is happening to her is happening to her, and she is grappling with her own sense of what is going on with her, and what she wants her choices to be—that whole issue is apart from what the kids choose. What do they want to do when they’re still in a place where they can make those choices? I’ve never seen a play like this, around these issues!

People don’t talk about it that much—it’s a very private thing.

Stephen Spinella: Exactly, and again, the play doesn’t answer any questions, but it just sort of splashes it out there.

How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut?

Eric Coble: It’s pretty thrilling. The chance to work with artists of this caliber—these actors, this director—on the biggest stage possible, and to get to share your work with that many people in this big of a spotlight is every playwright’s dream. Of course, it’s fantastic.

Where did the story come from? Is this something you’ve experienced in your own life?

Eric Coble: I’ve been fascinated with aging for quite awhile. The real seed of it is that I was walking past a neighbor’s house—an older woman who I knew was living alone whose children felt like it was no longer safe, and needed to move her out to assisted living. And I knew that she really did not want to go. And I just paused in front of her house one day; I was standing, looking, wondering what was going on up there, and what was going on in her mind. It occurred to me, Well, what if she just refused to go? How could she do that? Well, she could hold herself hostage—she could barricade herself in. […] And that was the seed of it. And then I thought, Well, who would then come in. Who could possibly talk her out of that? What member of the family would stand a chance? And then I got the image of this son climbing a tree, climbing in this window, trying to talk sense to this woman who was terribly cornered and terribly frightened. The whole play kind of spiraled from there.

Brigid Ronan contributed reporting.

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