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When the curtain went up on Raleigh Little Theatre’s first play of the 2021-22 season, it was the first time in 18 months since a show had been presented in the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, RLT’s main stage. The effects of COVID-19 are still in evidence, however; only about a third of the seats of this house are actually available, due to social distancing, and patrons are required to keep their masks on during the performance. Nevertheless, we were excited to once again be seated in the theater, and we were in for a real treat. The Velocity of Autumn, a work penned by Eric Coble, was the play we had come to see, and in the hands of RLT, it is the complete package: stunning design, superb casting, two dynamic and penetrating performances, and a play for the Ages.
The Velocity of Autumn is set in today’s Brooklyn, in a magnificent brownstone high-rise, the type that at sale would fetch a price in the millions. Set designer Jeannine Borzelle gives us a set that very much reflects that arrangement with the living room of a gorgeous flat sporting a bank of windows upstage and opening onto a courtyard that holds a magnificent old tree, now bare-limbed due to the season in its dormancy. The room itself is superb: there is a fireplace on our left, along with a stereo system; there is a sofa and sitting chair center; and a writing desk to our right. Upstage are two banks of built-in bookshelves. Further to our right is the entry to the flat, but hold on here: the door, at the moment, is barricaded with furniture and a multitude of bottles and jars full of a mystery liquid. This is yet another of those fabulous sets that RLT has become known for, the kind that makes you want to move right in.
When the curtain rises, we see Alexandra (we only know her name from the program; it is never mentioned in the play itself) seated in the armchair, in one of her power naps. She is surrounded with items we cannot identify yet, but they will become known to us shortly. At present, Alexandra has barricaded herself in the flat against her own children, Michael and Jennifer. We never actually see them; their presence is felt only as voices on the telephone. But as Alexandra naps, we see that someone is climbing that tree outside. After a struggle to attain a level even with the flat’s bank of windows, the man reaches over and throws open the center glass in an effort to gain entry. The result wakes Alexandra and she screams at the intruder, but he diffuses her verbal attack with a hearty, “Hi, Mom!” Nonetheless, she is still very much unhappy at his presence; she screams at him to leave her be. Nevertheless, after a considerable effort, Christopher, her youngest son, gains entry, and he informs her he is there to convince her to see reason and cease this standoff. She is not convinced. Instead, she asks him what he’s doing here. It seems that this is the first time she has laid eyes on him in twenty years!
We have now met the full cast. These two people are the only characters in Coble’s compact and volatile work. Alexandra is a woman well into her retirement. Still, she is dressed to the nines, in a flowing caftan of blue, complete with pearls and her diamond earrings. Her hair is neatly coiffed, and she looks as if she were dressed for an evening out, but she is dressed that way for a very particular reason.
Christopher is dressed warmly; obviously we are in the cold season in New York. He wears a goatee that is flashed with gray. Mother’s first words to him are, “You got old!” Interesting choice of words, coming from a woman in her 80s. Christopher, it seems, left home a while ago, and neither his mom nor his siblings have seen him in many years. He is here at the behest of his sister, who called him, frantic, to tell him of the situation regarding his mother. Jennifer begged Chris to please come and try to mediate a cease-fire in what has become a battle royale as both Jennifer and Michael have tried to convince Mom to please relent and let them “help” her. It is help, it turns out, that Alexandra neither wants nor needs.
Having failed (my bad) to view the electronic program prior to my arrival, I spent the show ignorant of who these two fine actors were; even so, I was duly impressed. I perused the program and was stunned to learn that the actress playing Alexandra was Mary K. Rowland, whose efforts at RLT alone are legend. I have followed Rowland’s acting in Raleigh for many years. A veteran of over twenty-five years on stage and at teaching, Rowland is remembered for such roles at RLT as the lead in Wit and as Sherlock in Baskerville, to name only two. Nevertheless, I completely failed to recognize her. It is a credit to her skills that even someone who has followed her closely could never have identified her. Playing opposite Alexandra is Landon Henry as Christopher. Henry is still new to Raleigh, having moved here with his wife only a year ago, but he is also a veteran actor/stage manager/director with a theatre degree from the University of Southern Mississippi.
As the interaction between these two progresses, we learn of Alexandra’s history…and also Christopher’s. They are both artists. He has spent his last few years in New Mexico, attempting to broaden his own not-insignificant painting skills, but he has been in New York City for awhile now. He tells his mother of an event that took place eight days ago in the city. It is a horrid tale, one that has far-reaching consequences, especially on Christopher, and it is this story that ultimately impacts the current situation with Alexandra. But how and what happens, you’ll have to see for yourself.
Raleigh Little Theatre, to put it simply, has done it again. This opening salvo in the new season is a blockbuster, and very deserving of your attention. Directed by RLT’s own Patrick Torres, this is a stunner of a show, one of those you will remember long after the curtain comes down.
RLT is operating under some pretty stringent COVID restrictions, and capacity in the Sutton Theatre is only about 100. You will need to get your tickets early. The Velocity of Autumn runs now thru Sunday, October 3. The show runs approximately 100 minutes without intermission. For more information on this production, please view the sidebar.