Nia Ali-Valentine on Smokefall
To call Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall” a success is fairly accurate in the broad sense; the performance has been credited with four-star reviews and highly recommended ratings from sources like the Chicago Tribune, TimeOut Chicago and the Chicago Sun-times. The show first opened in Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre in fall 2013 to high reviews, and was subsequently reopened this fall starring the same cast. While “Smokefall” has garnered great reviews, the success of the play in-theater is not nearly as superior.
The set is surreal, matching many of the ersatz elements of the play, with grass-covered steps and floors in the house to a suspended roof over the whole set of the play. The house has no walls, symbolizing the implied transitions into the other rooms. Although the abstract setup has good intentions, the magic of it does not reach the whole audience; it’s favorable to the viewers nearer to the stage and not those in the balcony seats. There are several lighting changes throughout the show that achieve their desired effects of mood change on the audience, but over a prolonged period the bright blue lighting (primarily used in the second act) invokes a sense of drowsiness, and the rest of the play becomes tedious to sit through.
From the very beginning, the play creates the sense of an odd but tight-knit family (along with Guy Massey as the mysterious Footnote, whom you’ll either love or hate for the bulk of the first half) living in the 1940s Michigan area. It opens with the mother, Violet (portrayed excellently by Katherine Keberlein), making breakfast in the morning. Footnote places random tidbits of insight into the family’s relationships in between every few lines of dialogue, which would ideally draw curiosity from the audience to the cast of characters but really pushes their significance to the back of the mind, as the audience anticipates his information over the wordy but well-intentioned dialogue between the cast.
Despite the questionable lighting effects, Haidle’s surreal script grips the heartstrings, highlighting the bonds of family and the impact that small decisions can have on future generations. However, the production isn’t executed quite as well as one might wish for thanks to Anne Kauffman’s directing, full of awkward pauses and long periods of silence. The two saving graces are the witty humor of the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum) and the mysterious presence of Beauty (Catherine Combs), who both shine in the first act of the play. “Smokefall” starts a little flat but gathers strength as the play progresses, only to fall flat yet again toward the end. If you can keep up with the overwhelming blue lights, endless dialogue and awkward character relationships, then “Smokefall” is the right play for you. If not, you may need to bring a pillow.