Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall” begins as it ends and ends as it begins; the ending is literally built into the beginning, and the ending is revealed to the audience within the first few scenes. The play is incredibly surreal yet it still manages to reveal the astonishingly real and vulnerable side of a family, a side that is evident in every family. The play bounces back and forth through time, coursing from one moment in a family’s history to the present and finally to the daunting future and back to the dark past, all the while tracking the effect of one soul’s choice on the generations that followed. Director Anne Kauffman eloquently portrays the struggles of a family yearning to hold itself together even as it crumbles apart.
The story begins on a bright and sunny morning. A family is getting ready for the day that awaits them. Their home is plastered with bright colors and patterns, reminiscent of mid-1960s décor. The mother of the family, Violet (Katherine Keberlein), is pregnant with the newest additions to the family—twin boys who she readily admits are a mistake, albeit a happy one. Violet bustles from one end of the house to the next, content with her role as mother and wife as she prepares breakfast for her family. Violet’s husband, Daniel (Eric Slater), is the typical businessman, and while he appears just as happy and content as his wife, this is but a mere front, and the audience soon discovers that he is as unhappy as anyone can be. Their daughter, Beauty (Catherine Combs), is a quirky teenager who has neither spoken a word to her family nor eaten a normal meal for several years. Rather, her diet consists of dirt, paint, and bark. The final member of the family is Violet’s father, fondly referred to as the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum). In the years following the death of his beloved wife, the Colonel’s mind has aged past its prime and he now suffers from dementia.
The final character introduced within the first act is played by Guy Massey, who acts as a narrator for the audience, providing them with the details and information that the characters conveniently shy away from. It is in this way that the play highlights aspects of life that are commonly glossed over, deemed as topics that are unsuitable or inappropriate for polite conversation: abandonment of one’s children, the end of a once blissful marriage, the unhappiness that dwells within even supposedly normal of families.
It is Massey’s character who reveals the truth about this seemingly happy family, and this truth is reaffirmed by the unborn sons of Violet and Daniel during a brilliantly crafted scene that occurs within their mother’s womb as she goes into labor. The twins boldly and wisely proclaim that, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” quoting Leo Tolstoy’s novel “Anna Karenina,” and thereby summarizing the family which they are about to be born into.
Actors Guy Massey and Eric Slater double up in their roles as they portray the unborn twins, and it is rather curious, although comical, that they are introduced to the audience in utero and as two full-grown gentlemen, who are knowledgeable and understandably wary of the world outside of their mother’s womb.
While it is admittedly hilarious to watch two grown men tickle and taunt one another on stage, their humor does little to prevent the growing tension and awkwardness that looms behind the laughter. From the start of the play, there is an uncomfortable tone to the story, as though the audience is missing some crucial detail. It looms over stage and the audience, half-heartedly hidden by a threadbare blanket of humor. The characters are desperate to maintain whatever semblance of happiness and contentedness they have, unwilling to accept the disastrous fate that looms overhead.
Fast-forward some 70 years, and the audience can now clearly see that the fates have not been kind to this family in the slightest. They have lost more than they ever thought possible, and they live now in a—quite literally—broken home, adorned by the ghosts of the family’s past and the lack of closure between a missing father and the ageless Beauty. It is within this scene that the audience sees exactly how the ending is built into the beginning as bits of the past are sprinkled in between scenes of the painful present.
When the play had ended, I sat there for a moment, trying desperately to discern what it was that had just happened. I understood the plot and dialogue but I could not for the life of me figure out the bigger picture. I went over each act in my head, attempting to piece the scenes together like a jigsaw puzzle. There had to be a bigger picture, there had to be a deeper meaning to it all. It wasn’t until later that I realized I had put way too much thought into the whole thing and the deeper meaning was staring me in the face. Violet practically announces it to the audience during one of her monologues: love is an inevitable part of life and so is pain. Sometimes, they come hand in hand.
Perhaps there is more to this play than what I picked up on, and maybe I’m missing out on something that is utterly mind-blowing and would change my life and the way that I view my life. But I’m only 17, and in all honesty, I haven’t seen as much in my life as others have. Perhaps the older audience was better able to divine something more meaningful from the play than that there is pain in love and in life. Maybe they are better able to understand the dynamics of the family and the choices that the family makes. Maybe I don’t really understand life as well as I thought I did, and maybe my 17 years haven’t provided me with the knowledge I need to discern the deeper meaning of this play.
If there was one thing that I was able to understand from “Smokefall,” it is that, more often than not, the choices we make in our youth or in a moment of impulse will be the ones that foreshadow our future. Our character in our youth manages to mold who we are in this very moment and in every moment to come. The end is built into the beginning. The second any one of us makes a choice, we have decided our fate, and we must accept what comes. We must not try to escape from what the future may hold for us, for it is all an integral part of our life. The love, the angst, the anger, and the pain.