Chicago Theatre Review
Time Past and Time Future
Smokefall – Goodman Theatre
Sometimes a play speaks to an audience in a special, almost personal way. It can, under a good production with an excellent cast, transcend time and space seeking out those universal truths that touch each playgoer’s heart. Such is the Goodman’s remounting, indeed, rethinking of last season’s critical and popular success that topped almost every Best of 2013 list. Returning for the Goodman’s 90th season, but this time playing in the larger Albert Theatre space, Noah Haidle’s heartfelt, intergenerational story about how love grows and flourishes feels fresher and even lovelier than a year ago.
The play’s original six-member cast of talented actors has returned home under their original director’s gentle guidance: the brilliant, Anne Kauffman, who has worked hand-in-hand with the young playwright for this entire page-to-stage journey. As Mr. Haidle put it, creating theatre is like going to camp. All the artists involved become a family very quickly through their close interaction and hard work. Then, when the play comes to the end of its run, everyone leaves and goes his separate way; it’s almost as if their lives have come to an end, and in a literary way, they have. Getting the opportunity to reunite and rebuild upon those original experiences, and make an even better piece of art, is a very rare gift. Chicago audiences are, indeed, fortunate to have this second chance to appreciate such brilliance.
Trying to describe this unique play is to lessen the impact of it’s beauty and emotional significance. Suffice it say that this is a story about a typical family, except that by examining the incidents of their lives it makes them seem atypical. This is true for any family. Violet and Daniel, who seem to be very happy, have been married for almost two decades. Accidentally, they’re about to welcome twin boys into their family. Beauty, their teenage daughter, has decided she has nothing more to say to the world and has stopped speaking. In addition, Beauty’s shunned eating normal food and is somehow existing on a diet that includes dirt, tree bark and house paint. Living with his daughter and her family is the Colonel, an elderly gentleman who’s showing signs of senility since his wife passed away some years ago. Most of the play is emceed and introduced by a narrator, who interjects a series of footnotes about what the audience is about to experience.
The entire effect bears a strong resemblance to the plays of Thornton Wilder. There’s a component reminiscent of “Our Town,” that playwright’s ode to the cycle of life; however, because the Haidle jumps between time and space, there’s an element of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” as well. The playgoer encounters moments of the here-and-now juxtaposed with scenes and information from times past and future. There is even a scene that takes place inside the womb, just prior to the twins’ birth. The same actors also play multiple roles. Sometimes they become younger versions of themselves and at other times they’re playing their character’s offspring. Even the narrator jumps in and out of the story playing several characters, as well as serving to link together the plot. This may sound confusing or academically existential but the overall effect comes from the heart.
Mike Nussbaum, Chicago’s favorite son, plays both the Colonel, as well as his own grandson, Johnny. The actor’s heartrending portrayal of this gentle patriarch, still in love with his departed wife and devoted to his daughter and her family, is very special. Dementia has robbed him of memories, but the actor makes every rediscovery a delight. But if that weren’t enough, Mr. Nussbaum also plays Johnny with clarity and kindness. One of the best moments in this production is when Beauty, Johnny’s estranged older sister, suddenly returns to the house where she grew up, reuniting with her younger brother. As the play meanders through time, the agile, talented Mr. Nussbaum almost seems to become younger.
Catherine Combs is a beautiful, poetic Beauty. The actress has a way of capturing the essence of a scene or creating a mood with just a simple look; her eyes speak volumes. This lovely young actress plays the older, wiser woman she’s become with dignity, tenderness and assurance. Katherine Keberlein is a portrait of grace and loving kindness as Violet. Finding her own private happiness from the care given to her family, the actress conveys both strength and a hidden vulnerability as she prepares breakfast and serves her beloved family. Whether singing and speaking to her unborn babies or, as her younger, teenage self, relishing the discovery and joy of young love for her husband-to-be, Ms. Keberlein is magnificent.
Eric Slater is stoic and loving as Daniel, while at the same time hiding all his insecurities and private longings for a freedom he’s always wanted. As Violet’s unborn child who carries the burden that he (and his twin brother) were both mistakes, Mr. Slater is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Guy Massey, playing the Stage Manager-like role in Haidle’s version of “Our Town,” explains and delineates events for the audience; but suddenly the actor jumps into utero action as Sammy’s unborn twin brother tucked next to him. The boys‘ banter and arguments, which sometimes border on dinner table philosophy, are both entertaining and filled with truth. As the older Johnny, Mr. Massey is solid and touching interacting with Nussbaum and Combs. Then, quick as a shooting star, Massey reverts back to being the narrator, wrapping up the play’s loose strings before Mr. Nussbaum brings the story to a close.
Technically the production is also a winner. Lindsay Jones’ beautiful soundscape, which greets theatergoers upon their arrival, is thorough and poetic. Matching this auditory canvas is Kevin Depinet’s sweeping, expressionistic setting that suddenly transforms magically before the audience’s eyes. David Weiner has selected his palette of color and lighting instruments with the care to illuminate and direct the audience’s attention, as needed. Ana Kuzmanic’s costumes tell their own tale, subtly and smartly supporting the playwright’s story.
As the Goodman Theatre, one of Chicago’s beacons of theatrical excellence, shines toward a century of professional, entertaining and enlightening productions, this production will be remembered as one of the hallmarks of its excellence. Anne Kauffman’s superb, thoughtful direction of Noah Haidle’s captivating and heartbreaking examination of love and family will no doubt find itself on yet another end-of-the-year listing of the Best Theatre in Chicago. It should not be missed.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 20-October 26 by the Goodman Theatre in the Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Smokefall.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.