“Grand Rapids for me is like the landscape of my imagination,” said playwright Noah Haidle in an interview with Tanya Palmer, the Goodman Theatre’s director of new play development. That imagination completely takes over in every arena of SmokefalI, directed by Ann Kaufman. Taking place in three realms of existence, the play explores the reality of a Midwestern family on the verge of a major transformation. There’s Violet, played by Katherine Keberlein, a mother carrying a set of twins—Guy Massey and Eric Slater—who love to fight and comfort each other. There’s a silent daughter aptly named Beauty, played by Catherine Combs, who turns out to be the martyr for her family, and a discontented father named Daniel whose dissatisfaction with his life after settling down may just push him out of it. And, of course, there’s the Colonel played by Mike Nussbaum, Violet’s elderly father who forgets who and where he is every day.
Hearkening back to the narrator from Our Town, every other line in the first act is accompanied by a footnote. A narrator guides us as we dive into the daily life of this family in a small town, with a bell echoing throughout to remind them of the hour. Violet speaks to her unborn twins as often as possible, preparing them for their entry into the world, and more importantly, into the family. As the Colonel wakes, Beauty silently helps him down the stairs and into the kitchen, where Violet again reminds him of who and where he is. Soon after, we are introduced to Daniel—to whom we will quickly say goodbye—on the morning of Violet and his anniversary. As Beauty sits down to breakfast, we learn that she may have more idiosyncrasies than the average preteen; she eats regular household and garden items. And as she sits down to a breakfast of paint and earth, Beauty listens as her father hints at his unhappiness and looming departure, since he knows that his sworn-to-silence daughter will not leak any secrets. Despite Violet’s strength and obvious leadership role in the family, as Daniel leaves for work, we can see that she is afraid for the future of her family.
In another realm, the twins are experiencing the action and dialogue of the house from a slightly different point of view—the inside of their mother’s womb. The twins sit on a couch in the dark dressed in tuxedos (their father always refers to them as gentlemen, at Violet’s request for them to hear his voice) and ponder the big questions of life. They are extremely receptive fetuses who debate with each other about the world they’ve not yet entered. We discover how worried Fetus One is to be born and throughout the scene, Fetus Two is trying to convince him that they have to experience the world before they can judge it. They play rock, paper, scissors to decide who will be named what: John or Samuel. As nervous as Fetus One is (he wins the name Samuel) Fetus Two (John) sings the lullaby their mother wrote for them inside her womb. The set provides a striking visual, quaking every time that Violet has a contraction. As the first act comes to a close, the change in family dynamic shakes the foundation of the house, leaving the set literally broken as the fetuses enter the world.
In a third and final realm, we enter a somewhat colder future in which the slightly fictional tendencies of the characters in the first act are traded in for complete fantasy. Beauty returns from a decades-long search for her father, looking just as she did when she was a child, refusing to age until she’s met her goal. Meanwhile, her younger brother, John, has lived a burdened life—revealed through his dialogue with his own son—confirming all of the doubts that his twin brother had inside the womb.
Catherine Combs is captivating in her portrayal of a young (and at the same time very old) woman who struggles to find her identity while pursuing her father. The versatility of the actors is showcased as they switch roles and take on whole new characters as the show progresses. Mike Nussbaum steals the show with his clever delivery of witty antics that provide a respite from the heaviness of the family’s problems. His honest portrayal gives validity to the hardships of living with dementia.
Haidle’s vocabulary throughout the show serves as comic relief at some points (the fetuses are more intellectually stimulating than the majority of my junior class) and at others, somewhat tragic. After the first act, the stunning display of verbal acuity almost feels like the result of an experiment; intelligence breeds misery, to have a heightened awareness is to wish that you didn’t. In his interview with Palmer, Haidle, a Princeton graduate, confides that his play is closer to home than he may be willing to admit, a believable statement, given the amount of parallelism and nuance that he includes in the work, the repetition serving to truly engrain the audience with his beliefs, the story fully existing within the details. The warm reception from the audience was all that a playwright could hope for. The characters’ lines, barely audible over the gasps and whimpers and sniffles from theatergoers, were crammed with desolation and the full weight of life.
Although some may have difficulty following the character switches and metacognitive language, the heart of the show was always present. Haidle brings his background to every piece of the show and uses the fantastical aspects of the piece to bring more honesty to the characters. This modern piece enraptures audiences using a thought-provoking subject: everyday life. Mandating self-reflection from viewers, Haidle’s Smokefall will leave us talking about its characters, set design, and moving story for years to come.