Currently playing at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts is the play "The Velocity of Autumn" written by Eric Coble and performed by TheatreWorks. It opened at the Booth Theater on Broadway in April 2014, and received a Tony Award for best actress.
I was invited to become involved because of the show's theme. It has two characters, Alexandra, an 80-year-old demented woman and her son, mostly estranged. As the curtain rises we find the mother asleep in a chair in her second-floor Brooklyn apartment. Her son is climbing outside in a tree to gain entrance through a window because his mother has barricaded herself within.
She awakens startled, and immediately brandishes a homemade bomb that is always at hand to fend off imagined intruders, particularly those who presumably were sent by her other children intending to put her away. She is a feisty character and resists her son's reaching out. She displays warped paranoia fearing loss of her independence. The script reveals her prior encounters with neighbors and others who ostensibly were struggling to institutionalize her. Her past interest in painting yielded to her demented hiding of all her canvases. Her son makes repeated overtures trying to inject some rationality into her contorted reality. Her food supply is precarious. She is isolated into a solitary world. The script is laced with sometimes comic but always deeply somber references to her overall decay into old age. The most poignant line of the play occurs when she remarks "I am no longer me." The full impact of aging's detrimental entropy is evidenced. She is persistent in her eagerness to die, but insists on staying home.
The play was powerfully pertinent to me as it represents the increasingly common struggle at the end of life to retain autonomy and efficacy. I was struck by the chasm between Alexandra's "less me" perspective and that of Mae Sarton who wrote "as I age I become more me."
Does aging represent less or more? a reward or punishment? a resource or liability? The play was particularly poignant for me because of the loss of my wife 10 months ago from Alzheimer's Disease. Her last years were a torment for her, me, and kids. Finally my wife mercifully died from a head injury prompted by her dementia. She died at home with no pain, tubes, or loneliness.
But far beyond my personal identification with the play was the recognition that its message represents a new world calendar with autumn upon us. We are all growing older. It is therefore not how old you are that matters so much as and how you are old. This qualification is largely negotiable. Choice or Fate?
After the curtain I was invited to the stage to dialogue with the artistic director. "What did the play mean?" "Was it real?" Nearly everybody stayed for the Q and As in the provocative postscript. We all enjoyed this discourse with many personal anecdotes emerging. The play touched everyone.
The play ends with the son's frustrating effort at creating an interface was the mother's faltering mind. He at last establishes some engagement. They leave together unlocking the barricaded door to go to the Guggenheim Museum which was an old favorite haunt.
Bortz's Law is reaffirmed : It is never too late to start, but it is always too soon to stop.