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Theater Fri Oct 17 2014

Goodman's Smokefall: Following One Family Across Time


When the Goodman Theatre staged the world premiere of Noah Haidle's play Smokefall last year in its smaller theater, the play received great reviews and audiences responded enthusiastically. The theater has remounted the production with the same cast this year in its larger Albert Theatre. Director Anne Kauffman has managed the move to the larger stage with grace.

Smokefall's main attraction is the charming, funny performance by veteran actor Mike Nussbaum, who will blow out 91 candles in December and romps around like a 70-year-old. Or a 60-year-old, if needed.

Smokefall is a sweet, funny story of love and life, hope and despair in four generations of a midwestern family. The family home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the setting and on Kevin Depinet's large modern-dress set, everything is slightly askew. The angled trajectory of the set's second level (which -- spoiler alert -- collapses in the middle of the play) suggests the rickety and fragile nature of family relationships.

GB-Goodman-Colonel.jpgThe opening introduces us to what seems to be a normal family scene, narrated in numbered notes by a character named Footnote (Guy Massey). It's morning and breakfast time. Violet (Katherine Keberlein) is pregnant with twin boys, to whom she talks and sings while she fixes breakfast for the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum), who wears his military uniform every day. He was married to Violet's late mother, Lenore, for many years during his military service. They made love on six continents, he remembers fondly. Beauty (Catherine Combs), the teenage daughter, decided three years ago to stop talking, so she communicates by gestures and nods. Violet serves her breakfast of tree bark, dirt, paint and twigs, her regular diet. Daniel, the father played by Eric Slater, gets ready to leave for work. Everyone salutes or sings to Violet's abdomen.

Footnote, voicing characters' thoughts, hints that the normal family scene is more than a little askew, but we are convinced when we learn that Daniel will leave today and head west in his car, never to return. Beauty and the fetuses lose their father. Violet is sad but prevails. The Colonel, alternately forgetful and frisky, has to be reminded that his wife is dead. Beauty leaves home.

The most talked-about scene and my favorite comes at the end of act one. In Violet's uterus, the fetuses wait to be born, dressed in tuxedos, engaging in existential discussions about life, love, fear and dread. The conversation is witty and wise, even if the scene runs about five minutes too long. Fetus two (Massey) comments, "Every life is a little bit of noise between two silences."

Maternal birth contractions are signaled by flashing lights, clanging metal and eventually, the collapse of part of the set. The boys argue about who should go out first and so fetus two dives out first. Unfortunately, fetus one doesn't.

In act two. Johnny, the surviving twin (Nussbaum) is now an old man. It's his birthday and his son, Samuel (Massey), arrives bearing cake and gifts. In a burst of anachronism, Beauty returns home at the age of 85, not looking a day over 15. We learn why she's been gone and how she finally found her father.

The play wryly makes us experience love and loss and appreciate them both. "Every love story is a tragedy," the Colonel says at one point. "The ending is built in at the beginning." Someone falls out of love, leaves or dies. Smokefall is a sentimental rendition of that human tragedy. It reminds me of Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, a play that explores human foibles in one family across generations and hops around in time delightfully. The Skin of Our Teeth is not performed often enough and I'm mentioning it now as a hint to theater companies filling out their next season. (You can see the Antrobus family on stage this month in Champaign; the University of Illinois theater is presenting the play at the Krannert Center.)

Smokefall is a beautifully written and masterfully directed play. Under Kaufmann's direction, every performance is sharp and meaningful. The scenes between Violet and her father are particularly warm and a model of how one can live with an aging parent who sometimes forgets your name. Best line reading of the night is Nussbaum's: "Bed, Bath and ... Beyond?"

Smokefall continues at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, through Oct. 26. Running time is 2.25 hours including one intermission. Performances are at varying times daily except Monday. Tickets are $25-81 and can be purchased online or by calling 312-443-3800.

Photos by Liz Lauren.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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