The Goodman’s Chicago premiere of Noah Haidle’s Smokefall, directed by Anne Kauffman, presents a sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and always original look into a seemingly ordinary Midwestern family. But, like with every family, peeling away the exterior reveals its share of hardships. At the center of the play’s ensemble cast is Violet (Katherine Keberlein), who is pregnant with twin boys. She appears the picture of maternal happiness, but has grown numb—and thus accepting—of the facts that her daughter, Beauty (Catherine Combs), has taken a vow of silence and only eats things like dirt and paint; her father (Mike Nussbaum) is developing dementia; and her husband (Eric Slater) is growing increasingly distant and is secretly planning to leave her. The characters struggle with questions with which we are all eventually faced: “What is my place in the world, and what is the point of being here?” Haidle addresses this theme by creating a magical and deeply philosophical world on the brink between realism and surrealism-- which may not appeal to everyone, though it will definitely please fans of new directions in the theatre.
Smokefall sometimes comes across as overly absurdist or philosophical, but because Haidle presents it through the lens of family, we can ultimately relate to it. The Goodman’s production creates a captivating, and, in whole, very moving production of Haidle’s play.
Kevin Depinet’s fabulous set design reflects Smokefall’s theme of a dysfunctional everyday family. It is a twisted version of a realist set: the whole house is there, but with rather unnerving colors—striking blues, yellows, and pinks—and surprising angles. The kitchen is perhaps the most normal aspect of the house, maybe because it is largely Violet’s domain, but if we look closely we can still find evidence of the family’s fraying edges, such as a bucket of bright blue paint for Beauty.
Haidle has a certain intangible skill in capturing the speech and mundane concerns of everyday people, which helps to make the play accessible, despite its underlying absurdist elements. The play has biting dialogue, though its overuse of words like “post-structuralism” sometimes comes across as a bit stuffy (the play’s director’s notes include a glossary of terms used in it). As a friend commented after the show, “The playwright went to college, and he knows it.” Haidle does cater to many tastes in his jokes: he makes a joke about studying Russian literature in college, and a minute later makes a joke about farting (which was just as funny to the adults in the audience as to the eight-year-old in the row in front of me). The pairing of these different levels of humor reflect the unpredictability of real speech patterns, and helped to pierce through the surreal atmosphere of the play.
Another highlight is a scene between Violet’s sons in her womb (played by Eric Slater and Guy Massey) while they are waiting to be born. Slater and Massey have a fantastic bond as the two brothers-- it is both loving and teasing, and advances the themes of the show without seeming overbearing. This scene felt somewhat isolated from the rest of the performance, but makes the entire production worth seeing. Definitely one of the funniest scenes (it has tickle torture--can’t go wrong there) it also hit on some deeper questions, like what exactly is out there in the world, and how do we face it? This kind of existentialist philosophizing mixed with comedy was reminiscent of Tom Stoppard, though with added profanity.
Haidle takes us to the extreme highs and lows of family life in Smokefall, and has an answer for anyone who questions the point of going on. His answer is “love anyway.” As one character points out, all relationships have their end built into their beginning: inevitably, at some point, someone will die or someone will leave. But the power of love is what keeps us going through it all. Haidle’s abstract style may not suit everyone, but this is a feeling that hits home.