Pitch-perfect cast, direction make for haunting, profound evening
|Goodman Theatre presents|
Review by John Olson
One could understandably have some trepidation about a play that purports to ponder the meaning of life, but Noah Haidle’s Smokefall cuts to the bone to challenging us to ponder our humanity. Albee-esque in the way it mixes realism and surrealism, it follows several generations of a family living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The time frame is unclear, but Kevin Depinet’s set suggests – again, with a mixture of fantasy and reality – a modestly upscale house of the mid-20th Century. As the play opens, the house is home to Violet and Daniel, their not-mute but silent daughter Beauty (who seems to be around 8-10 years old) and Violet’s widowed, Alzheimer’s-stricken father, John. It’s 7 a.m. on the day Daniel will abandon his family, running away from the responsibility of raising twins soon-to-be-born, a result of an unplanned pregnancy.
Haidle’s characters explicitly ask about the meaning of life, wondering what good it is to be alive if original sin makes us unworthy of redemption or determinism has already mapped out our fates. What emerges vividly from Smokefall, though, is an aching, devastating sense of loneliness. John’s intermittent bouts of Alzheimer’s cause him to repeatedly forget and then re-remember that his wife has died, opening his wound of grief anew every day. Beauty has, for some unknown reason, chosen to remain silent for the past two years, partially isolating herself from the family. The pregnant Violet is a kind and attentive caretaker to her father, and is already bonding to the twins gestating inside her body – the boys she calls “citizens of her world.” But one by one, most of these “citizens” will leave her. Husband Daniel will vanish that day, father John will disappear while on a walk some time later, and some ten years in the future, Beauty will run off in search of her missing father.
Haidle follows the scene of Daniel’s last day with the family with a funny, surreal section in which the twin embryos (played by the adult actors Guy Massey and Eric Slater) discuss their impending birth and whether it will be worth it to be alive. Ultimately, one of the brothers has to leave the womb before the other and it’s Johnny (named for his grandfather) who first takes the plunge. Samuel, though he promised to follow right behind Johnny, instead decides against birth, wrapping himself up in his umbilical cord and effectively committing embryonic suicide. We often hear in literature how we are born alone and die alone – but Smokefall initially promises the twins’ companionship in birth. That Haidle then takes this away is another of the script’s heartbreaks.
Smokefall’s second act occurs far in the future. Johnny is now an old man (played by Mike Nussbaum, in a dual role as the patriarch John as well his grandson) with an adult son, named Samuel in memory of the twin brother who was stillborn (and again played by Guy Massey). Johnny stayed with Violet through the end of her life, but his own wife has passed on as well. He receives an unexpected visit from Beauty, now in her nineties, but still played by the young actress, Catherine Combs, who played Beauty as a pre-teen. This reunion brings resolutions and renewed hope for the family, even at this stage, as the play ends.
Anne Kauffman’s cast and direction are pitch perfect. Though it’s performed rather presentationally, the script and performances capture the language and routines of daily life recognizably, even if oddly in places. (There’s a moment when Violet pours a glass of paint for little Beauty, as if it were juice, happily stating – “it was left over from the babies’ room”). The first scene has a great deal of direct address from a narrator called Footnote (Massey) – a device which returns only briefly in the second act to close the play. Though none of this is realism, it amazingly feels very true. Katherine Keberlein as Violet has a cheery, 1960’s sort of TV mom quality that is not satiric and Keberlein is still able to show her character’s underlying loneliness as she takes the lead in keeping together the family of aging father, unhappy husband and disturbed daughter. Slater is similarly skilled as Daniel, keeping up appearances as he plans his getaway. Combs makes a knowing, wise child as the young Beauty – who seems not to age as she becomes a 93-year-old woman.
The not-to-be missed performance, though, comes from Mike Nussbaum. His moments in the first scene as the proud ex-military General with Alzheimer’s are moving and funny, but he carries the play throughout the second act as the grandson Johnny, now in his eighties. Johnny is in full control of his faculties, occasionally battling gently with his adult son and dealing with a lifetime of memories when older sister Beauty, with whom he was once very close, returns. It’s masterful work for this Chicago treasure of an actor – playing both a character role and leading man as the son who, together with his sister, finally reconciles this estranged family and leads it into the future.
Smokefall is a haunting play that’s remained with me in the days since seeing it. Just writing the review has gotten me choked up again thinking of its themes. It’s likely to be remembered and revisited a good many times by many.
Smokefall continues through October 26th at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map), with performances Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $25-$81, and are available by phone (312-443-3800) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More info at GoodmanTheatre.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
behind the scenes
Anne Kauffman (director), Kevin Depinet (set design), Ana Kuzmanic (costume design), David Weiner (lighting design), Lindsay Jones (sound design), Joseph Drummond (production stage manager), Brianna J. Fahey (stage manager), Adam Belcuore (casting), Tanya Palmer (dramaturg), Liz Lauren (photos)