“Smokefall,” a new play by Noah Haidle at the Goodman Theatre, is about time, and love, and home. It is a moving portrait of the unifying and fracturing forces on a family in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as each member seeks to transcend his existence yet ultimately finds he cannot.
The first thing we see, the set, is tilted and askew, a representation of home but not a house, effectively representing the magical realist nature of the play. The play is narrated by “Footnote” (Guy Massey, also Fetus Two and Samuel), who shifts effortlessly from part to part, though the device becomes heavy-handed at times. From Footnote we soon learn that Violet (played by Katherine Keberlein in a moving, understated performance), the matriarch of the family, is pregnant, and that this day is an important one because on this day her husband, Daniel (Eric Slater) will leave her. Beauty, her daughter, played by Catherine Combs, does not speak and eats “impossible things,” always burdened by the fear that she is the reason for the dissolution of her parents’ marriage.
The silence motif recurs throughout the play, as one character calls life “blips in the silence.” We soon meet the Colonel, Violet’s father, played by Mike Nussbaum in one of the best performances I have ever seen, at the age of 90, no less. He convincingly depicts the comedy and tragedy of dementia without belittling his character, seeming both childlike and sage at the same time, commanding the stage. Combs and Nussbaum are both especially impressive at conveying meaning and nuance through facial expressions, though Combs less effectively portrays Beauty as an old woman.
Haidle has created here a play very much grounded in long-enduring themes and ideas, yet he brings a youthfulness and new light to them. The Colonel tells Samuel that “every love story is a tragedy because the ending is built into the beginning,” and the play itself conveys that thought, where even the grandfather is as hilarious as he is heartbreaking. Anne Kauffman’s direction gives spatial relations special meaning, with all movements deliberate and purposeful, yet strangely dreamlike, connecting to the idea of life as a “dream.” The set is used even more creatively, as in a scene in Violet’s womb that uses the couch and a door in the floor to represent Violet’s womb.
Coming into the second act, taking place seventy years in the future, the set becomes a way to communicate the themes of the play. As the first act closes with the miscarriage of one of Violet’s sons, the home splinters, just like the family that inhabits it. The set becomes a relic, as past and present coalesce both in the use of the same set in an act that takes place seventy years in the future, and also in Beauty’s flashbacks. It is an apple tree that comes in through the splintered cracks of the set, meant to represent the human ability to find purpose and to continue to love despite great sadness, which gives new life and unifies the family. Nevertheless, this is suggested enough through the set, and Haidle need not emphasize this idea so much in his dialogue.
The play begins to falter as its themes and lines are repeated again and again. Haidle explores the idea of a life past saving—choice and free will versus determinism, and whether or not we can find a purpose in a world that often seems pointless. Yet he offers no solution, except that love gives us the courage to go on. I found myself reminded of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” which presented the same themes in a different way and perhaps in a less heavy-handed one. The play itself becomes a “variation on a theme” (in the words of the Colonel), and the constant repetition lacks force. Despite such unnecessary repetition, Haidle shows himself to have a unique vision and voice.