Goodman Theatre. By Noah Haidle. Directed by Anne Kauffman. With Catherine Combs, Katherine Keberlein, Guy Massey, Mike Nussbaum, Eric Slater. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Noah Haidle’s sharp, sweet fable about the family ties that bind, and sometimes choke, was one of 2013’s most unexpected delights in its premiere last fall in the Goodman’s smaller Owen Theatre. When the Goodman announced its next season, Smokefall became one of the most unexpected delights of 2014, with Robert Falls’s shrewd, applause-worthy move to bring back the entire impeccable team—Haidle, director Anne Kauffman, her designers and cast—for a remount as the mainstage opener. On second viewing, Smokefall is even more beguiling than before.
I was struck anew by the fractured, figurative structure of Haidle’s portrait of a Grand Rapids family whose passions and problems, predilections and peccadilloes seem to get passed down the generations as if in the blood.
The 1950s-ish establishing scene has its quirks, what with pregnant mother Violet (Katherine Keberlein) serving a glass of paint and bucket of dirt to mute-by-choice teen daughter Beauty (Catherine Combs), and a character called Footnote (Guy Massey) wandering through to explicate the inner thoughts gnawing at unhappy dad Daniel (Eric Slater) or the back story behind Violet’s increasingly senile father, the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum, reminding us at every turn what an everloving gift he is).
But it’s the bold second half of Act I, in which Haidle presents Violet’s in-utero twins as a pair of tuxedoed man-children with a taste for existential philosophizing and vaudeville-style comedy, that truly announces Smokefall’s bona fides. As staged by Kauffman and played by Slater and Massey, it’s a masterfully off-kilter scene with a gut-punching twist, leading into a beautifully rendered second act that simultaneously delves into the family’s impossibly distant future and long-ago past.
Pay attention to the way Haidle repeats phrases and traits that resonate across generations, mirroring the way family stories become family lore; knowing what was to come, I heard new hints of the future early on while also finding new details to appreciate among the radiant performances and exquisite design. (Take note of the too-tight tux jacket on Slater’s fetus and the too-loose jacket on Massey; that’s no accident on the part of costume designer Ana Kuzmanic.)
It may be, as the Colonel says, that every love story is a tragedy because its ending is built into its beginning. How beautiful, then, to get to see one begin again.
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With respect to trainerLaura, she is incredibly off base with her review. Smokefall is filled with beautifuly truthful, complex performances, and pitch-perfect directing of a script that is whimsical but deeply real and human. From the stunning set to Mike Nussbaum doing a revelatory turn at 90 years old, Smokefall is a new and important play to theatre today.
Awesome set. Actors are terrific but this play seems like a Cliff note. "Quirky" details are arbitrary. Dialogue is filled with cliches or summaries of abstractions. Are the characters meant to be archetypes? So much was generalized.