For a dreamy masterpiece told through a timeless haze, "Smokefall," manages to bite audiences with the sting of reality. Noah Haidle's new play at the Goodman Theatre dances through four generations and one womb of a Michigan family in their Grand Rapids home, piecing together not just a lineage, but a human.
"Smokefall" is lyrically beautiful without being overblown. Perhaps most memorable is the first act's dialogue in utero. Audiences are introduced to Violet's (Katherine Keberlein) twin pregnancy during the opening scene and the dining room's sudden transformation into her belly is both creative and breathtaking. As Violet goes into labor, the twins quarrel lovingly about whether or not leaving somewhere they have been so happy is even worth it — Samuel (Eric Slater) seems very fixed on the idea of original sin. The unborn children debate the concept of human life tarnishing the soul from breath. Rather than coming off trite or pompous, this verbose scene is earnestly thoughtprovoking. Director Anne Kauffman utilizes the props of this sentimental scene in a manner so unexpected that she creates a charged ending audiences are not likely to forget.
Memorable characters like the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum) provide us with heartfelt confessions and wise aphorisms —“The greatest possible act of courage is to love and anyone who says different is an asshole,” — while delivering comic relief reminiscent of your craziest and oldest relative. Nussbaum, who recently celebrated his 91st birthday, perhaps gives the most vivacious performance of all, through two separate roles and one Fred Astaire jig. Eric Slater also took on multiple charactersfather turning to fetus turning to father seemed to reinforce the idea of inescapable family ties.
Because these family ties are inescapable. Beauty (Catherine Combs), a taciturn teenager who snacks on tree bark and baby blue paint, devotes her life to searching for a father that left. Her brother Johnny (Mike Nussbaum) spends the days believing his twin made the right decision in evading life. Lonely mother, Violet, struggles to hold on to an unhappy husband and senile father. The permanence of these situations is further established by the fact that the audience is taken nowhere but the house.
Like the characters themselves, the house of "Smokefall," finds new life in each scene and even comes undone at points. Such a constant background, emphasizes the play's theme of the inescapable human condition, ranging from failed relationships to minds that fall apart and long for the past, left wandering through the same rooms for years. The only part of play as constant as the set, is the characters' unshakable belief in love. Even through utter faith that to be alive is to be imperfect, unhappy, this family continues to expand and find each other. "Smokefall" is a bittersweet ode to time on Earth itself, one that audiences will recognize and appreciate.