Review: “Smokefall”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre, Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Nov. 3
Tickets: $10-$40
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Is life worth living and what makes it so? Those are the metaphysical questions at the core of Noah Haidle’s imaginative, engaging and often very funny “Smokefall” in the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre. Ably directed by Anne Kauffman, the three-scene play is set in a seemingly ordinary home in Grand Rapids, Mich., but quickly goes off in absurdist directions, echoing Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett and others along the way.

The first clue that realism isn’t the rule is Kevin Depinet’s set on which everything is askew. The narrator, Footnote (Guy Massey), looks down on the breakfast scene below, and his commentary (with plenty of footnotes) establishes an effective contrast between what we see and what we learn. We don’t know who he is for now but by the end it’s essential to completing the circle of life that’s Haidle’s subject — and that is symbolized by an apple tree Violet plants. 

As Footnote introduces us to the characters, their characteristics range from humorous to heart-breaking. The pregnant Violet (Katherine Keberlein) eagerly awaits the birth of her twins, while her husband Daniel (Eric Slater) is about to desert the family he loves because he can’t stand the numbing daily routine. Their self-sacrificing daughter, Beauty (Catherine Combs), who stopped talking three years earlier declaring she had nothing left to say, eats dirt and drinks paint. Violet’s father, the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum), suffers from dementia and can’t remember what he did yesterday or that his wife is dead.

Scene two, an erudite yet vaudevillian debate between an optimist and a pessimist about the value of life, gets its kick from the fact that the opponents, Johnny and Samuel, are the twin fetuses in Violet’s womb waiting to be born. Fast forward to scene three, and Johnny is an old man (Nussbaum) espousing the negative positions his brother held in the womb to the chagrin of his own son, Samuel (Massey), bringing the story into the fourth generation. At the same time, Beauty returns from a 65-year quest to find her father during which she hasn’t aged a bit. 

Although each scene could easily be trimmed, what I enjoyed most about “Smokefall” was its quirkiness — and that it made me care about these impossible people. Haidle may tackle the big issues, but his strength is in the details.