THEATER REVIEW: “The Velocity of Autumn” @ Karamu by Roy Berko

Through Sun 4/21

Cleveland Heights resident Eric Coble is the area’s most prolific and successful contemporary playwright. His scripts have been produced locally, as well as on and off Broadway, and at a significant number of national theaters.

Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn had its Broadway premiere at the Booth Theatre, starring Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella. Fairfield, Southern RaptureBright IdeasThe Dead GuyMy Barking DogA Girl’s Guide to Coffee and The Giver have been produced Off-Broadway. Not bad for a stay-at-home dad who served on the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education.

To make matters even more interesting, Coble was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado, “playing with rocks, sticks, seeing 1940s serials at the movie theater 30 miles away, and wandering the desert with his friends trying to avoid cactus until he was 15 years old.”

He notes that “moving off the reservation led to acting in high school, which led to majoring in English at Fort Lewis College (Colorado) before winging it to Ohio University for an MFA in Acting.”  Along the way “he started writing plays, which were well-received enough to spur him on.”

The Velocity of Autumn swirls around “Alexandra, an 80-year-old artist in a showdown with her family over where she’ll spend her remaining years. In Alexandra’s corner are her wit, her passion, and the fact that she’s barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone with enough Molotov cocktails to take out the block. But her children have their own secret weapon: estranged son Chris, who returns after 20 years, crawls through Alexandra’s second-floor window and becomes the family’s unlikely mediator.”

The 90-minute, one-act play centers on their confrontation, during which long-simmering issues rise to the surface. It’s a vision of onset senility, the indignities of aging, and the realistic intra- and interpersonal conflict of what happens when the mind and body start to betray us. It also confronts the issue of homosexuality and the value of art.

The Velocity of Autumn has been produced locally at Dobama and now is on stage at Karamu. The Dobama staging featured Dorothy Silver, the grand dame of Cleveland theater. It opened to glowing reviews. This was not the case in all of the other venues where the story has been told. One reviewer thought the play “uneasily alternates between jokey, one-liner-filled banter and such dark moments which lead to an expected conclusion.”

Maybe it’s 440/216 pride, but I thought the pathos, the humor, the interplay between the mother and the only one of her children whom she really likes, because he is most like her in his artistic temperament, was realistic. The ending is obvious, but what did you expect? This is not a tragedy. The building was not going to explode and this spirited woman was not going to go flaming off into this good night.

The Karamu production features Jeanne Madison as Alexandra, the aging artist and Imani Khiry as Chris, her son, and is directed by Nathan Lilly. Though not up to the level of the Dobama production, the intent and purpose of the author are adequately developed.

The lovely Ms. Madison is much too young to be playing an over-80-year-old. In order to add the appearance of aging, she often feigned difficulty in walking and getting out of a chair. In spite of these obvious ploys, her lines were sharp and pointed and the characterization is clear. Along with Khiry, she will be helped by simply running the play before an audience, as some of the comic timing was off.

Khiry played Christopher on the surface. It was often difficult to feel the depth of his love for his mother, the real feeling of distress with his siblings and his interpersonal angst, though his lines said those things.

Director Lilly seemingly needed more time and insight into truly developing his actors to undertake this emotionally laden topic-relevant script. The long, narrow arena theatre was too set-heavy for this sensitive show. Though well-designed and nicely decorated, the space overwhelmed the play. Performing in a smaller three-quarter round configuration would have helped both the actors and the audience to get closer to the action.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The Velocity of Autumn gets an acceptable production. Audiences should leave having both enjoyed themselves and come in contact with the issue of aging and its consequences.

For tickets to The Velocity of Autumn, which runs through Sun 4/21, call 216-795-7077 or go to karamuhouse.org/

[Written by Roy Berko]

 

 

 

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