Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Velocity of Autumn
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Oklahoma!

Mark Anderson Phillips and Susan Greenhill
Photo by Kevin Berne
After twenty years of absence (even missing his own father's funeral), Chris is finally coming home to see his seventy-nine-year-old mother—only he is hanging on for dear life as he tries to enter her Brooklyn flat through a second floor window. The front door was not an option because chairs are stacked against it to the ceiling, and it is duck taped to its framing. Oh, and everywhere there are enough Molotov-cocktail bottles to blow up the entire neighborhood; and there stands his mother with a Zippo lighter declaring, "I'm a cornered animal ...I'll do whatever it takes."

The threat Alexandra feels is the same one much of the watching audience of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley patrons may be feeling, if perhaps not quite as intensely as she: aging with all its side effects of aches and pains—body ones and children ones. Playwright Eric Coble has surely been on the son side of this elderly parent/exasperated child equation because his comedy The Velocity of Autumn captures in such loving yet stark terms what happens when well-meaning kids try to take over the destiny of a parent who is not ready to succumb to the inevitability of not being able to live alone any longer. When Alexandra says things like, "Names ... [are] like the empty pockets you know should be full," the scattered, soft laughter and sighs coming from the many near-and-there octogenarians of the opening night crowd prove that Eric Coble and TheatreWorks have gotten it right in portraying what Alexandra calls her time of "dwindling."

The nearby children, who did not abandon Alexandra the past couple of decades, have decided it is time to move her to a nursing home. She will have nothing of it and has barricaded herself in a self-made/self-destruct fortress of sorts, along with plenty of food for a long stalemate (but no meat, which she gave up for the Vietnam War). Their patience is gone, and they are ready to call the police if the returning prodigal son Chris cannot convince her to give up within an hour.

But there were reasons Chris left home and never returned, and those tensions are erupting all over again as he feebly tries to convince his mom to lay down her arms and surrender. The volcano that builds between them finally erupts as Alexandra blurts, "You left us, and you keep leaving. It's going to become the only thing you're good at."

As the spry, slightly bent over Alexandra, Susan Greenhill uses her entire being to express the stubbornness and anger, humor and hope, desperation and despair of this old lady who sees her world and that of her few remaining friends ending every day as "another friend dies. Another body part shrivels." Crippled hands vividly speak volumes as if audible words are flowing from their constant jerks, points, and sweeps. Every visible body part—nose, cheeks, the deep furrows on her face, eyes that pierce like arrows through the dark valleys under them—join her hands to be a full symphony of expression to support and enhance her continual flow of raging words.

For a woman who struggles visibly to lift herself from her chair, there is still much solace looking out her window at her favorite tree, opening the window to hear birds, and turning on her nearby player to listen to a favorite opera. The nods in the audience visibly agree in knowing understanding as she says in her raspy, guttural tone, "It's been a good body ... but it's breaking down ... I'm done ... and I want to die here." Many understand all too well her wanting to die with her books, her clutter, her familiar smells—not at some unknown nursing home full of strangers.

TheatreWorks veteran Mark Anderson Phillips (with over twenty-five shows on this company's stages) is the bearded, wandering-soul son Chris. He long ago escaped this Brooklyn abode and its inhabitants for points out west because, as he says, "my skin was always one size too small here." Sparring with his mother in a mostly laid-back manner, he is the straight man (even though he is gay) to introduce and give airtime for all her reminisces, rants and rages. He interjects his own version of childhood memories to counter and even to corroborate those of his mother, and he throws a few zingers of his own. "You really should write Mother's Day cards," he wryly interjects after Alexandra has rattled off a list of faults of her offsprings, including him.

Mr. Phillips brilliantly uses pauses as unique punctuation that hint that, for everything he reveals to his mother, another paragraph is going unsaid somewhere deep in his own troubled, torn-apart soul. Only when he finally opens the gates for an emotional clearing out of the inner unsaid do we finally get to see the real Chris emerge from his veneer of mostly muted response and reaction.

The beauty of watching this mother-son showdown is to discover, along with them, how much Chris is a near-exact replica of his mother. The reawakening of the bond that clearly was there in his growing up—one much deeper and different than Alexandra evidently had with either of the other children or her deceased husband—leads to a new union of wills to find a way out of this present dilemma, a coming together that is fun and gratifying to behold. Particularly cute is a joint venture of the two trying to remember names and details of aunts, cousins and uncles long unmentioned but still vivid in faces and stories, even if now nameless.

Giovanna Sardelli has taken Eric Coble's well-written, insightful script and makes sure its many lines of wit and wisdom find the right medium and moment for expression. The dance she has choreographed between mother and son is masterfully laid out as they first move in combat, then roam down memory lane, and finally gather in collaboration. With heart and humor, she has orchestrated a story in which it is easy to find one's own personal role as a main character in the set—whether as an aging parent, a sandwich-generation adult child, or even a grandchild/niece/nephew thinking about someone much loved but maybe rarely seen.

Andrew Boyce has created the stacked jumbles, shelves of knickknacks, and well-worn looks of a much-loved home. His scenic design, complete with big windows looking out onto the tree so meaningful in memories to both mother and son, is made complete by the the lighting design of Steven B. Mannshardt. Jill C. Bowers has dressed both quirky sorts in just the right clothes to fit their unique personalities, and Brendan Aanes has ensured split second timed sound effects necessary to the story.

Truths like "I am not me any more ... I'm going to be less and less me" are tough to hear for any of us—no matter our age. Who has not sometimes looked in the morning mirror thinking, if not actually saying, those same words? But The Velocity of Autumn does not dwell on decline and death as much as on the freedom to act and to be as one feels compelled during whatever amount of life left. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is staging a truly uplifting and heart-warming reminder of something Alexandra says to Chris: "Everyone has to follow their own compass - especially little old ladies and their estranged sons."

The Velocity of Autumn continues through June 26, 2016, in production by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.