By Scott Hartge
Playing at: The Goodman Theatre at 170 N. Dearborn through Oct. 26.
Basic storyline: Noah Haidle’s critically acclaimed play tells the tale of a mentally distraught family in its encore performance at the Goodman Theatre. Named “The Best in Chicago Theater in 2013” by the Chicago Tribune, Smokefall is instantly entertaining and thought-provoking.
Smokefall opens with what seems to be a normal family in Grand Rapids, Mich., in the midst of their daily morning routine in their modest home. The set resembles a 1970s-style house with a plush red sofa, stairs that sport a green shag-like rug, floral designs on kitchen furniture, and a robin egg-blue toilet and sink. There is also something slightly disorienting about the set, as the second floor looks uneven and a lone window toward the top of the set shows an eye-popping, almost unnatural blue sky.
The mother, Violet (Katherine Keberlin), is pregnant with twin boys and already has a daughter, Beauty (Catherine Combs), with her husband Daniel (Eric Slater). Violet’s father, referred to as “the Colonel” (Mike Nussbaum), is a humorous senior with a failing memory who only wears his military uniform. The family frequently voices how much they love each other, but viewers quickly see that all the characters suffer from the mental hardships of family life.
Beauty has voluntarily chosen not to speak and to eat extremely uncommon food items, such as tree bark, paint and pencils. It is then revealed that she does these things to try to please her father, who often complains about the house being loud and not having enough money. These efforts prove to be futile after Daniel leaves for work in the morning and never returns.
What stood out: Smokefall does a fantastic job of providing philosophical discussions that viewers will leave the play pondering. During the second act, the fetuses (Eric Slater and Guy Massey) inside Violet (yes, you read that correctly) humorlessly poke fun at the concept of original sin and the inevitable demise of one’s own life while Violet is in labor. This scene is not only very entertaining — due to the fact that two grown men are playing two unborn babies — but it also the most imaginative scene in a play which is already bursting with creativity and cleverness.
The play also deals with several time jumps that give it a mysterious vibe. Jumping decades forward and backward within acts may catch viewers off guard, but ultimately it adds an enormous amount of depth to the storyline.
Final thoughts: Smokefall is a compelling play about the philosophy of family, life choices and, ultimately, existence. Viewers may leave with a subtle feeling of sadness, but it certainly will not diminish the overall triumph of the play.