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'Smokefall' Delivers Surreal Look at Family Love

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 20, 2013 4:00PM

The Goodman's production of Smokefall, now playing on the Owen stage.

Make sure you’re paying attention during the Goodman’s production of Smokefall, the multi-generational family saga penned by surrealist playwright Noah Haidle.

There are only five actors in the show—but the audience is taken back in time, then hurtled forward 65 years, then thrown back into the present. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss the fact that certain characters play older versions of themselves, or descendants of their original characters, or different characters altogether.

Got that?

Now, let’s start where the show does, at a home in Grand Rapids where your average dysfunctional family is getting ready to start the day. The very pregnant Violet (Katherine Keberlein) fixes breakfast for her senile father, known as the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum), and her husband, Daniel (Eric Slater).

Violet and Daniel’s 16-year-old daughter, Beauty (Catherine Combs), sits quietly, waiting to eat her breakfast of freshly scooped dirt and a mug of paint — not only is Beauty a self-willed mute, but she only has an appetite for inedibles like sweaters and newspaper. Daniel briefly plays the happy husband, dancing and kissing Violet goodbye before hopping into his car for work.

But instead of driving straight to his 9-to-5, Haidle’s too-convenient narrator (Guy Massey) informs us that Daniel has long been masking his unhappiness with his humdrum life. So instead, he drives due west and flees his small-town life of bill-paying and family breakfasts.

The same day her husband leaves, Violet goes into labor with their twin boys. And here’s where Haidle’s penchant for surrealism starts in. In the next scene, we meet the in-utero twins while their mother is trying desperately to deliver them (a scene that’s hilariously intensified by Lindsay Jones’s sound design and David Weiner’s lighting techniques).

The twins (played by Slater and Massey) don white dinner jackets and sing Sondheim while debating whether they should leave the maternal comfort of the womb for the outside world, where they will no doubt carry the debilitating burden of original sin. The vaudeville-like scene is a mash-up of cheap laughs and bits of philosophy, with a little slapstick thrown in. Haidle, it seems, had too much fun with this part.

But time goes by and the family tries to recover from Daniel’s departure. Beauty spends the next 60-something years of her life trying to find him, only to return to her Grand Rapids home to bury her demons and comfort the brother she abandoned. Haidle plays with the idea of time as some characters grow old and reproduce while others are spared the physical affects of aging.

Ultimately, the play asks whether the family situation we’re born into truly defines us. Haidle uses an apple tree (part of Kevin Depinet’s impressive set), now growing in the family’s backyard, to symbolize familial roots. This metaphor, although quite heavy-handed, helps drives home the show’s pressing themes of the fragility of love and deep-rooted family ties. And those are themes that don’t warrant a zany bout of surrealist humor to hit home.

Smokefall plays through Sunday, Nov. 3 at the Goodman Theatre Owen Stage, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800 or online.