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‘Smokefall’ at Goodman: Revisiting a family frayed at seams, blessed with magical hope

Submitted by on Oct 11, 2014 – 8:28 am

The Colonel (Mike Nussbaum) dotes on his granddaughter Beauty (Catherine Combs) in 'Smokefall' at Goodman Theatre. (Liz Lauren) (2)“Smokefall” by Noah Haidle, at Goodman Theatre through Oct. 26. ★★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Mike Nussbaum, irrepressible at age 90, is like great Bordeaux wine. Need I amplify that? Chicago’s prince of perdurable actors is the single best reason – among many good ones – to catch Goodman Theatre’s almost-instant revival of “Smokefall,” Noah Haidle’s fine-stitched play about family, its profound fractures and its potential for healing.

Daniel (Eric Slater) contemplates a long goodbye to his wife Violet (Katherine Keberlein) and their unborn twins. (Liz Lauren)Goodman’s remounting comes just one year after “Smokefall” scored a major hit for the company, and apparently left many a local theater buff disappointed at not getting to see the show. But my guess is that a goodly portion of the second-run crowd consists of second-timers who were only too glad to revisit the play, and revel once more in Nussbaum’s touching, sly, commanding performance.

“Smokefall” is the story of a family that’s broken but doesn’t know it until the day it disintegrates utterly – only to be reconstituted by the grace of time and a significant factor of what might be called, for lack of a more apt word, magic.

It’s the typical American household, in Grand Rapids, Mich., where at the onset of middle age Violet and Daniel (Katherine Keberlein and Eric Slater) are living out lives of quiet desperation. Their teenage daughter Beauty (Catherine Combs) stopped speaking several years ago, at the same time she gave up conventional food. Her daily diet runs to items like flowers and dirt, washed down with a refreshing glass of house paint. Right away you see we’re into that dramatic mode known as magical realism. As it turns out, we’ve barely inched into it.

Twin fetuses Samuel (Eric Slater, left) and John (Guy Massey) get ready for their launch into life. (Liz Lauren)Their home is shared by Violet’s father, the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum). He is in fact a retired military officer, elderly, widowed and senile. The Colonel never tires of recalling that he and his late wife made love four times a day, all over the world. Two other key points: Violet is pregnant again – with twins; and Daniel, who doesn’t want to start over with parenthood and senses life shrinking from him, one day kisses Violet goodbye, leaves for work and simply heads down the road with the sun, never to be seen again. And Beauty’s not far behind him.

That’s the setup of “Smokefall.” Well, that and the play’s most brilliant bit, an intense existential dialogue between Violet’s two fetuses (played by Eric Slater and Guy Massey in tuxedos) as their haven is rocked by her contractions: They must prepare for their plunge into a world whose perils they already comprehend; but while one is eager to embrace the possibilities of life and accept its certain end, the other is filled with dread and loath to leave the womb’s comforting sanctuary. It’s a dazzling episode, smart, funny and poignant, the defining flourish of director Anne Kauffman’s closely considered work.

Johnny (Mike Nussbaum) and his son Samuel (Guy Massey) have a birthday chat. (Liz Lauren)What follows is a flight through time into fantasy, albeit with a sobering dollop of realism: Almost seventy-five years later, we see the family dysfunctionality repeating itself as one of Violet’s twins grown to old age (Nussbaum again) is visited on his birthday by his estranged son (Massey). They put on pointy little party hats – dunce caps? – and bicker. This goes very badly until who should knock on the door but – let’s say a messenger of grace, one who has come by that commodity through great faith and determination.

Nussbaum positively sparkles in double service, charming in his oblivion as the Colonel and dryly uncomprehending as the elderly parent ever asking his angry son, in effect, “What did I do?” But he’s also in superb company — the original 2013 ensemble, starting with Slater and Massey’s intellectual stand-up routine as the conflicted fetuses. Massey also provides an irony-laced commentary on events via a long series of “footnotes.”

As the mom, dad and silent daughter, Keberlein, Slater and Combs exude the forced cheer of a family trying to soldier on, making the best of a shared life whose bonds have frayed to the snapping point.

For this revival, Goodman has shifted “Smokefall” from the smaller of its two theaters to the larger, with no loss of that intimate sense of occupying the same space with these agonizing souls. Now as before, Kevin Depinet’s angular set gives the impression of a cross-section view of a troubled domain, and David Weiner’s lighting subtly accents every scene.

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