Noah Haidle’s Smokefall is an absolutely striking production. The intensity of the emotions portrayed onstage tug at the audience’s heartstrings. There are many elements of the show which are symbolic, abstract, or have an extremely deep meaning that is revealed to the astonishment of all watching. The most intriguing aspect of the play, however, is the constant intertwining of the ordinary and the disturbing.
It begins simply, with four interacting characters and a “footnote” (Guy Massey), who is a narrator of sorts meant to reveal information via spoken footnotes. The oldest character, known as “Colonel” (Mike Nussbaum) to all of his family members, wears his military uniform every day and reminisces often about the past. There is also a married couple, Violet and Daniel (Katherine Keberlein and Eric Slater, respectively), parents to their sixteen-year-old daughter Beauty (Catherine Combs).
It seems to be a quite normal family, yet there is something very disconcerting about each character and the way they interact. For example, at the beginning of the play, the “footnote” revealed that Beauty had not spoken in three years, beginning after she overheard her parents arguing about the loudness in the house. Additionally, she has taught herself to eat things most people believe are inedible, such as tree bark, dirt, sweaters, and paint. This began as before, after hearing her parents fight about finances. Beauty’s sacrifice for her family’s happiness is extremely relatable. Children often feel that they would do anything to make their parents happy, especially to keep them together. Despite his tendency to live in remembrance, the Colonel clearly has a severe memory problem, assumed to be akin to Alzheimer’s, and his every other line is “What’s your name?” or “What’s my name?” In his moments of clarity, he alternates between aggressive and gentle, further emphasizing his dual personas.
The father of the family, Daniel, is less extreme than the two previous characters, but his struggle may be more relatable. He has fallen out of love with his wife and his family, but he puts up a front to hide them from his pain. The footnote, in one of his many speeches, reveals that Daniel will leave for work this morning as he does every day, but this day, he will never return. His wife, Violet, is the most normal of the family, but she can plainly tell that her family barely holds itself together. Additionally, she is pregnant with twins, who, even though they aren’t seen as tangible people until later, are regarded as characters. The family interacts with them in reasonably realistic ways such as giving advice and kisses, discussing their love for the twins, but the unborn children’s thoughts and feelings are revealed by the footnote.
The twins come onstage later, while Violet is supposed to be in labor, as two men (played by Eric Slater and Guy Massey) in white tuxedos- probably “birthday suits-” and discuss the safety of the womb, their futures, philosophical topics, and other aspects of their lives thus far. They look forward to seeing their mother’s face and lament the loss of their father. Finally, it is time to be born, but disaster strikes and one of the babies dies. In this scene, another interesting contrast is made. The twins lament leaving their home, which is Violet’s secure womb, yet at the same time Daniel, their father, is escaping his family.
The second act lacks a footnote to narrate, but it is no less intense. Here, the focus of the play becomes less on the developing plot and more on the interactions of the characters, and Kevin Depinet’s set becomes far more important. In the first act, it was a simple house, but some of the proportions were extremely off. This reflects again the mingling of the everyday and the extraordinary. In the second act, the stage is littered with hanging apples, even inside the house, and the gloomy, dull lighting designed by David Weiner suggests age and loneliness. During the previously-mentioned labor scene, some aspects of the house had been demolished. These made Violet’s house literally a broken home.
Many parts of the play are abstractly portrayed, such as the “womb” and Beauty’s impossible eating habits. Sometimes such surreal aspects can make things too complex to be easily understood, but the emotions are incredibly realistic. These familiar feelings, such as enduring love, companionship, and survival ground the fantastic parts of the production. Anne Kauffman obviously understands the play completely, and she handles Haidle’s work’s specific requirements, such as the double-casting, expertly and elegantly.
Johnny, Violet’s son, played by Mike Nussbaum, lives there now, an eccentric old man who continually reiterates the topics he and his brother supposedly discussed during their birth. Beauty returns, now ninety-some years old but looking the same. The playwright’s decision to have the same actors play multiple rows is very symbolic. It draws important connections between the characters played by each actor. In addition, the second act the point of view returns to the past on multiple occasions. At times, this is disconcerting, but it reveals important information and brings even more parallelism to the plot. Smokefall is a very intense experience. Its abstract nature makes it something about which an audience must think critically. Despite its dark themes and tragedies, the theme is still a hopeful one, and it is an engaging play with a poignant message.