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Smokefall at the Goodman Theatre

Provocative Descendant of Our Town

By: Susan Hall - 11/05/2013

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Family breakfast with Mike Nussbaum and Eric Slater
Family breakfast with Mike Nussbaum and Eric Slater
Mike Nussbaum is irresistible as the Colonel and his descendant, a twin.
Mike Nussbaum is irresistible as the Colonel and his descendant, a twin.
The family home with Katherine Keberlein and Guy Massey as Footnote poised on the second level.
The family home with Katherine Keberlein and Guy Massey as Footnote poised on the second level.


By Noah Haidle

Directed by Anne Kaufmann

Creative: Kevin Depinet (Sets), Ana Kuzmanic (Costumes), David Weiner (Lighting). Lindsay Jones (Sound). 

Performers: Catherine Combs (Beauty), Anne Fogarty (Voice of Lenore), Katherine Keberlein (Violet), Guy Massey (Footnote/Fetus/Two/Samuel) Mike Nussbaum (Colonel/Johnny), Eric Slater (Daniel/Fetus One). 

Owen Theatre at the Goodman

Chicago, Illinois

Fall 2013 


Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable. 

T.S. Eliot

Noah Haidle’s play Smokefall is heady.  Its very erudition might disturb if it was not punctuated with apt and engaging humor at every step of the way.  Mike Nussbaum stands out as the Colonel, the grandpater familias in Act I, who is losing his mind, but not so much so that he can’t remember having sex four times a day with his wife Lenore when she was alive.  Because she is no longer around, he walks often to the graveyard to celebrate former good times .  

Part I, the Past, is a page from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.  Instead of a Stage Manager to guide us, we have a neutral figure providing footnotes to the scenes below.  The Emily-like figure, Violet, played by the lovely Katherine Keberlein, is almost at full term pregnancy with twins who she is ready to welcome in an instant. She is as ordinary as the extraordinary family who surround her.  Her daughter Beauty does not speak, drinks paint and eats dirt.  Only once is her silence broken, when Beauty tells her mother she loves her.  There may be a message here. 

Violet’s father is ascending into dementia  And her husband is trying to put a good face on matters, but is secretly preparing to leave home forever.  A darker, truer ‘our’ town in the Midwest?  Are New Englanders’ tougher, more tied to the real? Wherever we are in these everyman plays, “for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for us.”

Part II, the Present, is a brilliant novelty.  The conventional house goes dark, the refrigerator door open and spills out its contents as the two fetuses will also soon be. They are being juggled by labor pains and Mom’s pushing. 

Contemplating their future in the world, language is carved from the PBS shows which members of the family into which they will be born seem tied. The concepts they articulate are weird, but that may be the point.  The novelty certainly startles. 

Part III, the Future. takes place in a shambled house, which is also the Garden of Eden.   DNA obviously comes with the apples.  Our common origins in disobedience, which leads us to suffer generation after generation of birthing, and the heritable traits we bear which inevitably tie us to family trees are portrayed.  

Again Mike Nussbaum, now playing one twin, delights.  The family goes on in a surprising configuration, which repeats and probably will repeat as long a man inhabits the earth. Beauty had wandered the earth ageless, searching for her father, and finds peace at last when she brings his bones home to bury in the backyard. 

Humor comes throughout the play in spoonfuls of sugar, which make the bitter message palatable.  Even pleasurable.

Smokefall is a lovely word, which appears in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets “To be conscious is not to be in time
.  But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
 The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
 The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
 Be remembered; involved with past and future.  
Only through time time is conquered."

The performance provides food for thought, presented in a very entertaining, unusual drama. 


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