The Velocity of Motherhood: How Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella Became Mother and Son Onstage

Estelle Parsons and Stephen Spinella talk with Playbill.com about playing mother and son in The Velocity of Autumn.

Estelle Parsons
Estelle Parsons

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It was as natural a childbirth as happens in the theatre, according to Molly Smith, artistic director of D.C.'s Arena Stage and director of The Velocity of Autumn. She called up her star, Estelle Parsons, and asked whom she'd like for a son in this Eric Coble comedy.

"Without a beat, she said ' Stephen Spinella,'" reported Smith. "I said, 'Have you worked with him before?' She said, 'No, I just think he'd be right.' So then, I called Stephen and said, 'Would you be interested?' He said, 'Oh, my God, of course! I'd be honored.'"

Smith is pleased at what she wrought just by asking. "These are two actors at the highest level of their craft and abilities."

At 86 years old, Parsons plays the fast and funny Alexandra, a Molotov cocktail-packing mama teed-off by her kids' plan to put her in a rest home: She has enough explosives stashed in her Brooklyn brownstone to take out a whole block. Spinella is Chris, the wayward prodigal his siblings send home, via a second-story window, to talk her out of disaster.

"I think Stephen is a wonderful, deep, and powerful actor," said Parsons. "There was something this character needed to have, physically and in attitude. This play won't work if he looks like a leading-man type, what we used to call juveniles. I felt Molly was going in the same direction. We didn't really talk about it, but I thought Stephen — the way he's built, his whole demeanor — would be perfect. I didn't know him at all, but he just came to mind."

Estelle Parsons
Photo by Joan Marcus

The unsuspecting Spinella read the play, not knowing the role was already his for the taking, then called Smith and said, "What made you call me?" (Translation: "Who passed on this?") She floored him: "Molly said, 'I asked Estelle, and you were the first choice.' I've got to tell you, that was an amazing moment."

As for being on stage with the iconic Oscar winner? "She gives you what's going on with her right at that moment. You're always on your toes... Her performance is never set. We affect each other in real time on the stage with our performances. We live in real time.

"What's great is she has the most powerful intuitive sense about where she needs to go that I have ever experienced with another actor. She'll suggest something that to me on the face of it would feel like 'No, that doesn't seem like that's what the script is asking for.' Then, I try it, and it turns the play in a way that the play completely supports and adds more complexity at the same time. I've learned to listen to her.

"There's a speech in the play that I kind of figured out early on, and, when we were running lines, she said to me, 'You know what that speech is. Now, let yourself find it every night.' So now, every night when I do that speech, it's different... I find something different in it every night, and it's thrilling... You really live by the seat of your pants.

"There's a school of actors who figure out what their performance is, and that's what they give. They know exactly what they'll do every night. Not Estelle."

The "casting director" gets the last word: "Casting right is 99% of it, right? I just thought Stephen would be perfect, and he seems to be. The audiences love him!"