What kind of a bizarre play features a first act scene involving two unborn fetuses, played by grown men in white tuxes, existentially debating the merits and demerits of jumping down the birth canal of their mother, willfully (or not) committing the act of being born?
The answer is the weird, creative and kind of awesome "Smokefall," brought to Chicago audiences by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Noah Haidle. Haidle characterizes his creation in press materials as "an incredibly personal play that has been with me for a long time." Though the vignette I describe above might lead you to doubt the veracity of the claim, after viewing the one-of-a-kind work, masterfully directed by trustworthy Obie Award-winner Anne Kauffman, the bizarre and fantastic seem intimate and authentic at the same time.
There’s no way that rote plot summary can do this charming oddity any justice, but here it goes. Set in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one middle-class WASPy family bears its tortured, naked soul across three generations of time, picked up and put down with chaotic logic (this production warrants the invocation of unexpected, fulfilling oxymoron). The show opens with a deceptively serene and tolerant Violet (the gentle and strong Katherine Keberlein -- another interesting juxtaposition) making breakfast for her senile father, mute teenage daughter and quietly desperate but still loving husband Daniel (Eric Slater, a true chameleon).
It is in keeping with the structure and spirit of this play, where events and people echo through time, that Slater also plays one of Violet’s unborn twins, Fetus One, and one doesn’t doubt for a second that it’s entirely two different people.
Guy Massey inhabits the role of Fetus Two (John, so named after birth), as well as the narrator and John’s eventual son, Samuel. Still with me? It doesn’t matter. Sit back and enjoy the funny, heartbreaking, intensely complex ride.
The acting performances are stupendous and multi-layered. Without the skills of the production’s five major players, this piece could have been a real disaster. But instead I am left with the tough decision of singling out Mike Nussbaum (Violet’s father, the Colonel, as well as a grown John) for particular notice.
With rich material featuring ribald dialogue and enough emotional regret to bring down mountains, the theater veteran, with a career spanning 50 years, appears to be having the time of his life. At the opposite end of the spectrum Catherine Combs, making her Goodman debut, will make you want to cry for a speechless, pica-afflicted young girl who outlives everyone she loves.
A creative work filled with terrific performances deserves technical support to match its inventiveness. And "Smokefall" gets that and more. Set Designer Kevin Dupinet, whose work I’ve enjoyed in several Goodman productions, does it again. He successfully converts a family living room into a woman’s womb with only seconds of stage time at his disposal. The result is neither graphic nor requires a suspension of disbelief. Seriously. Just imagine.
Sound Designer Lindsay Jones blurs the line between labor contractions and earthquake aftershocks, replete with vibrating set pieces that manage to mirror the foreboding angst of Fetus One and Fetus Two. And I bought it completely. It’s rather remarkable.
I want to say to the 2013/2014 Chicago theater season in general: with some notable exceptions, I really like what I’m seeing out there. But even amongst a relatively satisfying crop of fall offerings, Goodman Theatre’s "Smokefall" is an attention grabber.
The press packet describes the script as one that Haidle had "in gestation [pun intended?] for five years, inspired in equal parts by Thornton Wilder’s simple evocative humanity, Samuel Beckett’s bleak poetry" and Haidle’s own brilliant imagination. The time was oddly, disjointedly and radiantly spent.
Tell me you’re not curious. Go.
"Smokefall" runs through Nov. 3 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For info or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.