“Smokefall” review

‘SMOKEFALL’ HIGHLY RECOMMENDED When: Through Oct. 26 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $25-$81 Info: (312) 443-3800;www.GoodmanTheatre.org website.com Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Noah Haidle’s play, “Smokefall,” took my breath away when I saw it for the first time last October at the Goodman Theatre. And I confess, when it was announced that the Goodman would be remounting it this fall — and moving it to its larger stage — I was wary. I wanted to hold on to all my indelible initial impressions, and past experience has taught me that “remounts” can be a very dicey business.

I should not have worried. The production that opened Sunday night — with all its original cast in place under the impeccable direction of Anne Kauffman, and with Kevin Depinet’s glorious magical realism set intact — is, if anything, better than ever. Or perhaps, because the play’s clever, multi-generational storytelling was already familiar on some level, the absolute beauty, wit, sadness, eccentricity and quiet monumentality of it all just came into sharper relief this time around.

“Smokefall” is a glorious play — a latter-day “Our Town” in its way — with a unique blend of sophistication and open-heartedness. It is a work that leaves you thinking about every human connection you have, whether on an intimate scale (with your family, “family tree,” romantic relationships), or the cosmic one (the whole grand cycle of life, love, loss, hope against hope, guilt, experience, inheritance and death). And Haidle’s genius is that along with the pain and wistfulness come great bursts of true comic brilliance, so you leave the theater in a strange state of tearful exuberance.

The place is a house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, inhabited by two generations: The widowed Colonel (the uncanny Mike Nussbaum, 90, who visibly grows younger as he moves around the stage), who faithfully visits his beloved wife’s grave, and his only child, Violet (Katherine Keberlein, in a performance of exquisitely internalized heartbreak), along with her husband, Daniel (Eric Slater is ideal), and their daughter, Beauty (Catherine Combs, whose delicate face speaks volumes), now 16. Beauty stopped speaking several years earlier (and began eating strange things like tree bark and paint) after hearing her parents argue, and thinking she might be the reason. (As Sondheim reminded us, “Children will listen.”)

The play begins as Violet is near the end of an unplanned pregnancy and is about to give birth to twin boys (one of the great tragicomic, existential scenes, played memorably by Slater and Guy Massey, who also is the play’s narrator). The responsibility is far too much for the workaday Daniel, who married when he was too young and now just wants to be free. He leaves, and that departure gives birth to many changes, and to two subsequent generations whose lives set Haidle wondering: What really determines our fates — nature, nurture or something in between? And are we really in the Garden of Eden but just fail to realize it?

Leave it to the Colonel to get to the root of it all. As he reminds all around him: “The greatest act of courage is to love.”


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