By Mark Horning
Posted April 8th 2019
(PHOTO CREDIT-MY SONIA SHORTER-LITTLE: L-R IMANI KHIRY (CHRIS) AND JEANNE MADISON (ALEXANDRA)
Just ask anyone who is there, growing old is hell. With each passing day you find life a series of diminishing returns. Activities that you could previously accomplish with ease are now mental and physical challenges. Then comes that inevitable day when well-meaning offspring suddenly decide that you are simply not able to take care of yourself and you are packed off to “God’s waiting room” (the modern equivalent of an ice floe) to count the days until your quiet and terrifying end. Local playwright Eric Coble attempts to capture the spirit of this universal transition through his play The Velocity of Autumn, now on stage at Karamu and directed by Nathan A. Lilly.
Alexandra (Jeanne Madison) has spent her life as an independent woman traveling the world as an artist until she met, married, and had three children, Michael, Jennifer and Chris (Imani Khiry) by a local school teacher (now deceased). She lives alone in a New York City Brownstone apartment in a fashionable neighborhood where she has barricaded herself against “the mongol hordes and invaders” who are trying to force her out.
Chris has been brought all the way from Arizona, where he works in a shoe store, to try to talk some sense into his mother. He enters the apartment by climbing a tree up to the second floor window. What he finds is a tidy living space in which a couple dozen Molotov cocktails filled with highly volatile developing fluid. It soon becomes clear that Chris is the only child Alexandra can stand, due to his extensive traveling and artistic bent. Chris is truly his mother’s child. Their discussion is constantly interrupted by phone calls to Chris from his impatient siblings.
The problem is that Michael and Jennifer have run out of patience and will be calling the police in one hour in order to break down the door and capture the feisty woman. Alexandra tries to plead with Chris that, although she is old and slowly diminishing, she is not quite ready for assisted living or a nursing home.
The acting in this production is uneven at best. The comedic timing necessary to propel the story forward seems to misfire more than hit. There is no real connection between mother and son even after they reconcile and cease to be combatants. Whether by design or not, one never feels that Alexandra is a real threat to anyone, especially herself. The youthful Jeanne Madison is challenged by the role of someone decades older than herself, while Imani Khiry lacks the bohemian qualities that his life would have endowed him with.
The set by Inda Blatch-Geib is an example of how sometimes too much is too much. It runs parallel to the entire seating section and is chock full of what would be a lifetime of mementos to the point of nearly getting in the way of the action.
It did not help things when, at the performance I attended, an audience member’s cell phone suddenly erupted with the loud sound effects of “Slingo” followed by five minutes of a recorded advertisement until the owner was finally able to shut it off for good. The cast could do nothing but wait patiently until peace was restored, while Chris commented on how noisy the neighbors were, much to the delight of the crowd.
With these distractions aside, the writing is superb dealing with a subject that is quickly turning into a hot topic as members of the baby boomer generation now reach the end of their run and arrangements must be made for their care, all in 90 minutes without planned interruption.
For the many Clevelanders who face the difficult decision of what to do with mom and pop, The Velocity of Autumn has the courage to broach the subject. While the ending may not give everyone the solid answers they need, it will at the least open up discussion.
The Velocity of Autumn, through April 21, 2019, at Karamu House, Arena Theatre, 2355 East 89th Street, Cleveland OH. Tickets may be purchased online by going to karamuhouse.com or by phone by calling 216-795-7077. Parking is free and patrolled.