Smokefall, written by Noah Haidle and directed by Anne Kauffman, begins by introducing a seemingly normal family with seemingly normal problems. There's the unhappy and overworked father (Eric Slater), the lonely, fretful mother (Katherine Keberlein), the deteriorating, senile grandfather (Mike Nussbaum), and the daughter who loves them all so dearly she'll sacrifice her own voice (Catherine Combs). Her troubled brothers come later, as does a more relatable, modern nephew. These are all characters with a purpose and they are portrayed beautifully by the actors, kept believable and undeniably human even as things get more and more abstract.
They're getting ready for the day and it's just another morning for them. An omniscient character (Guy Massey) observes the scene and inserts his own "footnotes" here and there - a simple, blunt way to convey vital information to the audience. Here we are introduced to the play's most abstract character, Beauty, and to the subtleties of the dynamics among this family. Through these characters, this first act magnifies just how screwed up the everyday person is.
The atmosphere is immediately recognizable as abstract and eccentric: the set speaks for itself in this respect, with a downward-sloping floor and a grievously slanted ceiling with a warped, disproportionate window. I sat down, saw the set, and thought, "Oh God, this is going to be one of those plays." Fortunately, it wasn't quite so until the third act. Before that, it made complete sense and was generally relatable. It was abstract but not painfully so.
Especially original, fresh even, was the second act, the scene taking place within the mother's womb. I loved the womb scene! The way the fetuses were portrayed was ingenious - incorporating a soul-searching "to be or not to be" dialogue involving comically complex vocabulary with the basic, childish play of two baby brothers. It did, however, extend a little too long for me and I began to lose interest in the constant back-and-forth that repeatedly alternated between comedy, brotherly love, and an innate existential crisis. This was completely forgiven by the intermission; the conclusion of this scene is absolutely mind-blowing and leaves you with a newfound weight that you can't even begin to comprehend.
The third act (except for the first scene) was confusing. As soon as things got especially abstract, I began to focus intently, desperately searching for clues and hidden meanings and metaphors and symbolism, trying to identify some sort of elusive, profound message. I really couldn't make any connection to anything and the end of the show found me utterly dazed and confused, a feeling that was only aggravated by the rapidly changing lights and the shifting of time and, for some actors, character. I generally understood what was happening on stage but I couldn't get my finger on the point of it.
What was the meaning of this show? The message to carry home? I couldn't say - the conclusion of all the unsolved conflicts just seemed desperate, searching in itself, as if the playwright wasn't even sure how he felt. Was this play about family? About home? Existential struggles? The initial reaction would be to go with existential struggles, but with a closer look it doesn't seem likely. Existential conversation is kind of mocked - the characters become frantic and rant when they talk about it, using big words and philosophical terms - and there is always another character to roll their eyes and tell them they're overreacting. Home, then? The home in this story seems to be somewhat of a trap, though stocked full of memories and meaning and purpose. So it must be family, right?
Still, the final act was hard to find purpose in. It just seemed unfinished, as if it were still waiting for some kind of reasonable conclusion. But who knows, maybe that's what the playwright intended. It is certainly a show that leaves you with something to think about.