Hubbard Hall's 'Autumn' is must-see theater
Visceral play on aging and family relationships opens in nearby Cambridge, N.Y.
CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — God willing, my mother will turn 93 this summer and head back north to live with me, from my sister's place in the D.C. area, where she spends her winters.
Mom's arrivals are a big deal for me, as are her departures every fall. With leaves falling from trees and life being sapped from the New England backdrop, I put her on a plane heading south, always conscious that the hug I give her at the airport may be our last as mother and son.
Much of this same dynamic is at play in Hubbard Hall's deeply poignant presentation of Eric Coble's "The Velocity of Autumn," directed by David Andrew Snider.
The play (which garnered a 2014 Tony nomination for Estelle Parsons) finds Alexandra (Christine Decker), a retired painter, being told that she must move out of her house and into a retirement home. Barricaded in her Brooklyn brownstone, she's surrounded by Molotov cocktails, ready to ignite them and go out in a blaze of glory rather than be taken from her home.
When it seems that she's about to light the place up, her estranged son Chris (Oliver Wadsworth) climbs into the second-story window from their beloved song bird tree, and into an exchange that, at least from this critics' experience with his mother, rings true, and then some.
Snider not only had his actors ready to go like bulls facing down a matador, but it's clear he also knows how to cast. The dynamic, the vibe, the synergy and the raw passion coming from Decker and Wadsworth filled Hubbard Hall's intimate Freight Depot with tears, smiles, nodding heads, and most of all: familiarity and empathy.
It's impossible to mention one without the other, and that's how good Decker and Wadsworth were in this play, as their own emotions poured out not as actors, but as human beings.
The players, however, were half the formula: the other half was the writing itself, which I found very true to life and realistic given the back and forth with my own mother.
And as if divine intervention were all part of Snider's set up, about 15 minutes into the play a very elderly women with her walker was gingerly escorted into the front row of the audience with her much younger daughter (or possibly granddaughter), reminding all of us that life, more often than not, imitates art in ways we can't even begin to fathom.
Lights by Calvin Anderson were nuanced and followed the progression of the day perfectly. Costume design by Sherry Recinella brought both actors nicely into their personas, and scenic design by Darcy May filled the cozy space with the story of an entire life - look for the perfectly place empty spots on the walls where Alexandra's paintings once hung.
The show was stage managed by the adept Dan Salzer, with lighting backed up by Matt Catron and Kristoffer Ross' technical direction.
The play ran a crisp 90 minutes with no intermission.
Two-actor performances, or "two-handers," are something of a lost art, and harken back to the rich dialogue exchanges found in the movies from the 1930s and 1940s. Wadsworth and Decker don't stop this connection often, and calling their journey a roller coaster might not do it justice. But their pauses, their silences, screamed out to the audience in ways that no dialogue can.
Coble knew what he was doing when writing this play, right down to Alexandra having taken Chris to museums when he was a boy. My mother did the same for me, with our Saturday morning walk from Nostrand Ave. to the Brooklyn Museum, a ritual we rarely missed.
In this light, and so much more, Snider took his actors down a road of intent which found its destination in our hearts and our minds, over and over.
As Hubbard Hall's 40th anniversary season starts to wind down, Snider wisely found room for this jewel of a play in the schedule. The selection of the Freight Depot as venue was also purposeful, and a stroke of genius to help enhance the intimacy.
"The Velocity of Autumn" is not just a play about mothers and sons, but also about basic human dignity, pride and honor, which the Greek philosopher Plato, through Socrates, reminded us is often all that's left when we are old, useless to the rest of the world, and so often not a priority in the lives of those to whom we gave life.
There is much to learn and to feel in this performance, but not a long time it will be on display at Hubbard Hall. Parents, take your kids to see it, and kids - even adult ones - if your parents are anywhere nearby, go out for an afternoon or evening and even though it's March, revel in the love which only a season like autumn can bring.
"The Velocity of Autumn" will run through March 11 at Hubbard Hall on 25 E. Main St., Cambridge, N.Y. Info and tickets: 518-677-2495 or hubbardhall.org.
Telly Halkias can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter: @TellyHalkias