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‘Smokefall’ by Noah Haidle returns to the Albert Theatre at the Goodman this season after an all-star run in the Owen Theatre last season. Only slightly altered and expanded, the production retains the original cast and direction by Anne Kauffman.
Imagine if the minds of playwright Thornton Wilder and novelist Jonathan Franzen teamed up to tell a non-linear story about a Midwestern family and the cycle of life. ‘Smokefall’ is essentially just that. Starting with a narrator (Guy Massey), this play does a fascinating thing. it gives life to the expository text rarely seen in theatre, but an essential attribute in a novel. Explaining the day to day private thoughts and anxieties of characters, given in the form of Dave Eggers-style footnotes.
The play starts off with a semblance of real-life, real-time storytelling (aside from the narrator on a higher ground telling you information about the family). The beginning of a new day in a non-too-distant time and place. Violet (Katherine Keberlein) is nine-months pregnant, shuffling around a kitchen assisting her elderly father and teenage daughter. The script explores the myriad of complexities that exist in even the most ordinary of mornings, the secret life brewing just beneath the surface of our everyday lives.
It’s after this initial scene that rules are broken and the play moves into fantastic devices, such as having the two fetuses Violet is carrying have a hilariously philosophical discussion before being born. In a play that takes such artistic liberties it’s imperative to have a cast that can fluidly move with the shifts of the narrative. Kauffman’s highly capable cast is believable, at times charming, and other always deeply moving.
Attention must be paid to Mike Nussbaum who is 90 years old and delivers each line with the sincerity of a child. Even when telling his son that his life’s been a mistake and useless – it doesn’t come off as insulting but merely the observations of a man who has lived.
With superb effects and staging by Kevin Depinet, ‘Smokefall’ is a play that challenges how we tell stories and interpret life. It’s about the choices we make and what futures they bring. With hardly any character specifics, audiences will walk away feeling as if they saw their own lives from start to finish, however bleak or beautiful in this short play. (John J Accrocco)
Smokefall at The Goodman Theatre 170 N Dearborn Street. Through October 26th