There is plenty to like about iTheatre Collaborative’s new production of The Velocity of Autumn, now playing at the Herberger Theater Center. Carefully paced direction by iTheatre cofounder Rosemary Close lends a casual, real-time feel to Eric Coble’s melodrama, and performances from Judy Rollings and Brad Bond bring his long, engaging mother-son banter to vivid life.
Rollings is Alexandra, whose two eldest children have decided it’s time for her to leave her home, to be “placed” in a facility. She’s frail, she’s old, and her kids aren’t interested in options, or in what Alexandra wants; they need to stop worrying about their mother’s well-being. Bond is Chris, her youngest, who turns up after a 20-year absence to try to reason with mom, who has barricaded herself in the Brooklyn brownstone where she raised her family. He enters through a second-story window, having scaled Alexandra’s favorite tree, and the 90-minute conversation that commences is by turns gloomy and insightful, rarely sentimental and never stagey, thanks to fine performances from Rollings and Bond.
Rollings has the showier role with the most laughs. Alexandra whips between demure contemplation and maniacal demands (she has rigged up her house with Molotov cocktails, and is threatening to burn it down if people don’t leave her alone), but Rollings chooses to dial down her big scene, playing it as an emotional whisper that resonates more loudly than a broader choice might have. On either side of that scene, she paints a subtle portrait of an enraged, frightened woman.
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Bond’s performance is emotionally perfect, melancholy and very real. He inhabits every scene so fully, even those belonging to Rollings, that I found myself watching him just listen to her various monologues. Even in repose, he brings a curious façade of vibrancy to nearly every moment of his performance as a man reliving a shared past with his mother.
If the play’s laughs are not unexpected, they are well-timed and neatly placed, providing respite from a dark, indulgent argument between mother and son. Perhaps too many of Coble’s punch lines come at the expense of old people — bodies crumpling, memories failing — but Coble goes deeper, making points with commentary on the emotional relationship we have with visual art, and how we’re changed by loss. Chris’s speech about visiting the Guggenheim and “riding the elevator down to the gift shop to buy a refrigerator magnet, just like life” is as gorgeous as any monologue in any contemporary play.
Close’s direction is sturdy and workmanlike, and she shows a steady hand in keeping gestures small and the tone nuanced. Some of her blocking choices are peculiar: Why does Rollings have her back to half of the audience for several important speeches, for instance? Overall, though, this Velocity of Autumn — the company’s first as a Herberger resident — is a fine production.
The Velocity of Autumn continues through September 18 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Visit itheatre.org for tickets.