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‘Smokefall’ at Goodman: Behind worldly veil, tears and contentment fuse into force of life

Submitted by on Oct 23, 2013 – 2:42 pm

Review: “Smokefall” by Noah Haidle, at Goodman Theatre through Nov. 3. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Life sucks, and then you die. If that dark existential view sometimes can seem like the only certainty, taxes being at least negotiable, it is repudiated – with gentleness and magical wit — in Noah Haidle’s new play “Smokefall,” presented in its “co-world premiere” at Goodman Theatre.

This is Noah Haidle’s second world premiere at Goodman, which in 2006 unveiled his “Vigils.” The new play’s “other” first performance was given in March 2013 at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, which co-produced “Smokefall” with Goodman. Haidle, a product of Princeton University and the Juilliard School, lives in Detroit.

“Smokefall” is set – past, present and future – in Grand Rapids, MI, where Violet and Daniel lead an almost ordinary life. She’s a nearly happy housewife, he’s a hard-working and dutiful husband and they have an adolescent daughter called Beauty. When she was born, Daniel decided she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Now Violet and Daniel are in a mid-life twostep, organized, efficient, evidently affectionate — and yet just out of sync in the neatly mismatched pairing of Katherine Keberlein and Eric Slater.

Yet we quickly discover all isn’t quite perfect in this household. For several years, Beauty hasn’t uttered a sound. Also, she has long since stopped eating food, anyway food as most people would think of it. She makes her meals of earth from a pail, or perhaps old clothing or flowers; and she may wash it down with a refreshing glass of paint.

That’s pretty funny, until we discover why Beauty (Catherine Combs in a performance of disarming insouciance) has turned to such unusual victuals and why, moreover, she doesn’t speak. Then it isn’t funny any more; then, it’s chilling.

This virtually happy home is shared by Violet’s senile old father, a former soldier (the wonderfully oblivious Mike Nussbaum) who still wears his military jacket, asks the same questions a hundred times and gets through each day by dint of routine.

Ah, I failed to mention that Violet is – surprise! – pregnant again. With twins. Daniel does not view the prospect of this birth as a reprise of the wonder of Beauty. Actually, he is incapable of processing the idea, and quietly imploding.

And that is life in Grand Rapids. But there is of course more life here: the two fetuses in Violet’s womb, about to plunge into the world. Act 2 is their scene, and here Haidle’s smart play ramps up toward brilliance.

These unborn brothers – played by Slater, the disintegrating Daniel of Act 1, and Guy Massey, who punctuates that introductory scene as the wry commentator Footnote – grasp what awaits them, at least in broad terms. They know it’s going to be tough out there. Thus, decked out in white tuxedo jackets, the two babes ponder that opening void beneath them as Violet’s seismic contractions begin to bring their safe inner world crashing down. (Set designer Kevin Depinet’s collapsible domesticity provides its own commentary on events.)

One twin is eager to take the plunge, to experience the full adventure of life; the other is loath to give up his present security for a future of hard knocks that will bring pain and disappointment and can only end in death. Theirs is a fascinating debate – an examination and assessment of man’s fate — before inevitable confrontation with it. What must be shall be, right?

Act 3 speeds us forward about 80 years. One of the twins (now portrayed by Nussbaum, again with a deft command of orneriness and irony) is having a birthday. His grown son (Massey again repurposed), with whom he has a difficult relationship, makes an appearance. And who else should show up but Beauty, returned from a lifelong quest – still in the undimmed loveliness of girlhood. Now we see the tape run back, remembrances of things past, the recycled conflicts, the newness of love, the avowals.

Now is life not just brought full circle, it is embraced in the fullness of perspective. In director Anne Kauffman’s spirited and elegant care, love and human frailty are conjoined in the image of family. If the sins of the father are handed down, so are those links of human DNA that perpetuate goodness of heart, capacity for understanding, ever-blazing hope. Where there is smoke, there, too, is the forging fire.

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