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Estelle Parsons soars in 'The Velocity of Autumn' at Arena Stage

Alexandra, who has been feeling all of her 79 years, sits in her Brooklyn brownstone surrounded by bottles filled with flammable liquid. She keeps a Zippo lighter ever at the ready. 

No one, but no one, is going to get her out of her home. Yes, she knows that she is, well -- "Dwindling. That’s the word I settled on," she says. So all she wants is to finish out her days with "a little touch of grace."

As portrayed by venerable actress Estelle Parsons in Eric Coble's funny-bittersweet new play "The Velocity of Autumn" at Arena Stage, Alexandra is a startling force -- wry, wise, wistful, obsessive, compulsive, angry, a little spiteful.

She complains about getting old, and about the two children who are determined to look after her interests, which means moving her into some sort of nursing facility.

There is a third child, Chris, the son who left home a long time ago and has had little contact with his mother.

His unexpected arrival, after climbing through an upstairs window to get into the heavily fortified house ("You’re making me feel like I just stumbled into a weird little cottage in a forest in a Grimm’s Fairy Tale," he says), upsets Alexandra in many ways.

Is Chris just another meddler? Will he understand his mother's perspective any better than his siblings do? Could he possibly be a godsend?  

Other than the Molotov cocktails, this might not sound like a spectacularly fresh concept for a play. After all, senior citizens raging against the dying of the light, or having issues with their kids, are not exactly uncommon.

But Coble reveals considerable flair for creating interesting characters and giving them dialogue that sings and stings in equal measure. "The Velocity of Autumn" has more than enough surprises and expressive layers to make for a satisfying theatrical experience.

The playwright taps deeply into what it means to age, and what it means to watch a parent going through that relentless process. Coble is sensitive to the pain involved, but gets the humor, too, in the bone-creaking and memory lapses ("Proper nouns are the first thing to leave the body," Alexandra says).

Maybe the autumnal imagery is a bit thick here; maybe having the first sounds in the play come from a recording of the Berlioz "Requiem" is on the heavy-handed side. But Coble balances all of that with a hefty dose of comedy in this two-character work.

If some of the verbal sorties between Alexandra and Chris suggest a high-end sitcom, they are often very amusing. And Coble reveals a flair for setting up laughs with the simplest of means; what happens when Chris uses the expression "different strokes" is but one example.

There's great fun, too, out of nothing more than the words "Gorgonzola cheese" -- they pop up when the subject of Chris' sexual orientation is raised -- although Coble then piles on unnecessary followup that dilutes the initial effect.

Mostly, though the author gets balances just right in the taut, neatly structured 90-minute play, which premiered in Idaho two years ago.

It was to have enjoyed a Broadway production last season, directed by Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith. When that fell through, the show got added to the lineup at Arena, where Smith guides it fluently. (An eventual Broadway run is still possible.)

Coble has written two other plays about Alexandra, the determinedly self-reliant, artistic woman he created. It is not necessary to know those other pieces, which look into her young and middle-age years, to appreciate this chapter about Alexandra and the urge that defines her -- the urge to be free.

It's an ideal role for the 85-year-old Parsons, and she slips effortlessly into it. (OK, during Wednesday's opening night performance, she did have to call for a line, but that slip was over in a flash and just made the actress all the more endearing.)

Parsons helps you feel the full weight of Alexandra's worries and frustrations, as when she laments how another piece of her world "peels off and slides to the floor" every day.

And when Alexandra goes on riffs about the noble tree outside her house, or the wonder of experiencing art -- the recounting of a visit to the Guggenheim Museum with Chris when he was a kid is one of the play's most memorable lyrical flights -- the actress achieves extraordinary results. Hers is an honest, involving portrayal that lights up the stage.

Parsons has a fine foil in Stephen Spinella as the prodigal, pony-tailed Chris, a guy who has had his own ups and downs with life and dreams. Spinella conveys the distance between mother and son as tellingly as the closeness.

Eugene Lee's warmly detailed set includes a view of the attic, where an old easel seems about to collapse, a symbolic touch to go with the empty living room walls -- Alexandra removed all her paintings when she could no longer relate to them.

But, as so wonderfully inhabited by Parsons, it's clear that Alexandra has plenty of creative spark left. She just needs to keep it from igniting that incendiary in her hand.

"The Velocity of Autumn" runs through Oct. 20.

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