“Smokefall”, the Goodman Theatre’s most recent bombshell, is both jagged and wise, comic and heartfelt. Written by Noah Haidle, “Smokefall” is a story about love, but by no means a love story. Despite the play’s surrealist overtones, Haidle’s genuine writing leaves the audience with a sense of having witnessed something very real.
Though there’s no way to truly anticipate the scenes that Director Anne Kauffman has painted, walking into the theater you can tell that this play is slightly and wonderfully askew.
The stage is an asymmetrical array of beams, fifties-style furnishings and grassy, floating stairs. A door waits off to stage left. A red couch takes center stage. The entire play stays in this one setting – this old house, with a platformed upstairs, and a kitchen-living room on the ground level. The characters run a parallel to their surroundings, just as quirky and slightly-off as the set.
The audience is greeted by the empathetic and witty Narrator (Guy Massey), who adds footnotes to the characters’ dialogues and weaves a backstory as the play unfolds. The Narrator is the first of a cast of five – the dementia stricken grandfather (Mike Nussbaum), Violet, the pregnant-with-twins housewife (Katherine Keberlein), her disillusioned and out-the-door husband Daniel (Eric Slater) and their daughter Beauty, a teenager with a self-sacrificing vow of silence and unusual appetite for tree bark, paint, and other “impossible things” (Catherine Combs).
Each of the three scenes is a very different chapter in the same time-bending story. The play is made of the before-and-aftershocks of a broken family, as husband Daniel leaves without warning. Without Haidle’s wit, the show might become heavy and melancholic. After all, the play involves a broken family, dementia, and a dead baby. But there’s something quick and kind about the script instead. What could easily be a melodramatic calamity becomes a perfectly comic tragedy.
The second scene is a complete directorial one-eighty from the first. Dressed in white tuxedos, the two philosophizing, unborn twins bicker playfully with each other in utero. The scene is truly a display of brotherly love. The twins, played by Slater and Massey, fight about being born (will it be good or will it be awful?), using theses from Plato and Nietzsche, ranging from logic to madness in their debates before breaking into tickle fights. The zeniths of their verbal battles are punctuated by a deep rumbling and flickering of the lighting fixtures around them – contractions. Their choice of staying or going becomes a greater imperative.
It is a scene of worry, but Slater and Massey do it masterfully. In one scene, they show the limits and edges of familial compassion, how selfish and also selfless we can be towards the ones we love most. They drop hugely important existential wisdoms as though they were merely conventional truths. They expose brotherly love in a way that is so genuine and so touching. It is real and honest like the rest of the play, and it is truly a credit to Kauffman’s directing that, in the middle of extreme surrealism, this honesty leaps from the stage to touch the audience.
The third and final scene sculpts the play into its full surrealist prism. Apples on thin fishing line have descended from the ceiling. The set looks broken, as though it has gone through catastrophe. At this point, the play completes the circle. A brilliant combination of writing, directing, and acting, “Smokefall” lives up to its misty title as bits of thematic wisdom from earlier dialogue are repeated (“Love is a tragedy with the ending already built in”). The troubles planted in the first scene become generational.
The play is smart. It’s not overly heady or too abstract. Though untraditional in its format, “Smokefall” speaks truths about family, about romantics – the perversities and tragedies of both kinds of love. Buried in the play, each audience member will find a connection to their own family, to something broken or not quite whole. But like every family, the play is hopeful. Its characters endure. Among its many reoccurring wisdoms is the line, “The most courageous act is to love”.
The play exudes love, and all its fractured tendencies.