CHICAGO—Noah Haidle’s hugely ambitious Smokefall reaches for the literary stars but lands somewhere on the moon. At first we feel like we are seeing an updated Our Town, until magical realism takes over. Then we visit the starker worlds of Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett, and eventually Haidle acknowledges Stephen Sondheim and wraps up with a couple of lines from Shakespeare. The title is a reference to a T. S. Eliot poem.
The lunar landing is not bad, however. Taking into account the existential lunacy the author perceives in our lives—the meaninglessness of our existence, he explains that in every beginning, at the start of every romance, for example, lies the seed of its tragedy and its death.
We are fated beings, with fate being determined by either biological determinism or original sin—or both.
Why not succumb? His answer to the existential crisis is love. We ultimately choose whether to love or not. That unsettling choice is ours.
The play open with a homespun, commonplace feeling, bringing Our Town to mind, as Footnote (Guy Massey), the play’s narrator, introduces the characters. We see devoted mother and wife Violet (Katherine Keberlein) talking to her unborn twins and fixing breakfast for the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum), her 77-year-old father.
The Colonel has never been the same mentally since his wife, whom he loved on six continents, died. But in her unceasing patience, Violet doesn’t mind.
If the Colonel’s mind is faltering, he has his routine: a jigsaw puzzle, lovingly taken apart every night by Violet; a daily walk to the cemetery to visit his wife, if he remembers to stop; and his granddaughter, Beauty (Catherine Combs), to keep him company.
From this ordinary start we move to unrealistic events that are taken as perfectly normal—that is, we move into a realm of magical realism.
Beauty, Footnote explains, has chosen not to speak in years. Not only that, she eats dirt for breakfast and drinks a little leftover paint. Her odd behavior is taken in stride by the family, Footnote explains.
Daniel (Eric Slater), husband to Violet and father to Beauty and the unborn twins, loves them. He says that the day Beauty was born she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
But Footnote explains that Daniel has never felt comfortable in the household. When Dan leaves that morning for work, he will get in the car, start driving, and never come back.
Sensitive Violet and Beauty somehow know that Dan is leaving.
Beauty’s choices have been made out of love. It is past arguments between Violet and Dan about peace and quiet that drove Beauty to stop speaking—she has given up her voice to make her father happy. Fights over money sparked Beauty’s queer choice of food—she has given up food to keep peace.
After Dan leaves, the playwright jars us into a different reality—somewhere between Sartre’s existential angst and Beckett’s comedic despair. After Violet’s water breaks, we are inside Violet’s womb, living through the terror of thunderous, electrifying contractions along with her unborn sons.
Like a pair of Beckett’s characters, Fetus 1 (Slater) and Fetus 2 (Massey) engage in bits of showmanship and verbal play and bicker over who is to be named John.
At the bottom of their quibbling, though, Fetus 2 is trying to convince his brother that living is worthwhile. They sit above a hellish trapdoor, with red light glaring up from below, fearing to be born. (The world awaiting is a hell—a la Sartre.)
Fetus 1 is not convinced. After his brother leaves to be born, Fetus 1 wraps the umbilical cord around his own neck. His choice, like his father’s, is not to love.
All of this is just Act 1.
Act 2 moves back and forth in time, with nods to Sondheim and Shakespeare.
Remarkably, all of this mishmash is clear and makes its point. Like twisting DNA strands, character traits and behaviors reappear in each generation; however, despite our ultimate fate, we each represent the infinite variety of life.
These repeated patterns of behavior are made clear by having the same actor inhabit different roles or by having Footnote mention the same characteristic when describing each person.
Moreover, it’s terribly refreshing to see a performance where compassion, as portrayed by Keberlein’s Violet, and self-sacrifice, as seen in Combs’s Beauty, are highlighted.
In fact, all the performers exude warmth and ordinariness, from Nussbaum’s crusty quirkiness to Slater’s cheerful mask over sullenness. (Of course, it’s a special treat to see Nussbaum playing a character 13 years younger than he is.)
Yet ironically, for a play that teaches that love is the answer to life’s meaninglessness, the audience leaves feeling strangely disconnected. None of Sondheim’s bittersweet existential angst here. We don’t connect to the characters because we don’t experience their existential pain.
That Dan wants to leave his family and that Fetus 1—both played by Slater—refuses to enter this household, a household in which love and patience are so completely evident, is baffling.
The playwright has given these characters no reasons to want to escape, other than their own unwillingness to try. Their unwillingness to try—choosing not to love—is the point, but as a result, we don’t fully invest emotionally.
Usually, when a play blocks our hearts, it opens our minds.
Haidle’s nod to Shakespeare reminds us of Hamlet’s existential crises, “to be or not be.” In that speech our minds must grapple to make sense of it. The mystery of what it might mean pulls us in.
The same with Beckett—his plays are mysteries that we cannot solve, but despite ourselves, we try to.
But Haidle prevents our thinking as well as feeling. There is no reason to dig too deeply. Hyperconsciousness is everywhere. It is not just Footnote who explains and explains what the play means, the characters do as well.
The consciousness of our own history and the history and traits of our family is part of Haidle’s point and refers to Eliot’s poem, which states, “to be conscious is not to be in time,” but only through time can time be conquered. Our consciousness is what allows us to choose to love (or not).
But the problem is that hyperconsciousness robs us of mystery. Without mystery, with everything explained, the piece ends up feeling presumptuous, as though Haidle knows all the answers.
Is all this explaining necessary? With Haidle’s brilliant ability to embody meaning in theatrical terms, it is not. Two fetuses, one chooses life and love, and the other does not. How lyrically that expresses Haidle’s premise—death already present at birth. It doesn’t need to be explained at all.
170 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org
Running Time: 2 hours
Closes: Oct. 26