"Smokefall" appears to be Noah Haidle's version of "Our Town." Nearly every American playwright has one, but most keep them hidden in desk drawers.
This addition to the Thornton Wilder 2.0 collection, however, has been honored with an attentive production, directed by Anne Kauffman at South Coast Repertory (in a shared world premiere with Chicago's Goodman Theatre). Those with a penchant for homespun elegy playfully whipped up may enjoy "Smokefall," but the work is really a collection of derivative themes in search of a fleshed-out drama.
Telescoping three generations of tenderness and sorrow in a Midwestern family, the play includes a stage manager-like character, identified in the program as Footnote (Leo Marks). He annotates the proceedings, filling us in on the past and the future of this Grand Rapids, Mich., household with all the farseeing clarity of an omniscient narrator.
Footnote No. 1. "The Church bell tolls seven times."
Footnote No. 2. "Violet is pregnant with twins. Due any day now. The twins are mistakes and suspect as much."
And then the big footnote: No. 11, in which we find out that Daniel (Corey Brill), the twins' father, is going to leave for work today and keep driving, never to see his family again.
Violet (Heidi Dippold) senses her husband's unhappiness. To compensate, she tries to respond to everyone's needs with the selfless love and dedication of a 1950s TV mom.
Sensing trouble, Beauty (Carmela Corbett), Violet and Daniel's sensitive daughter, hasn't spoken a word in years and refuses to eat normal food. Violet, ever-placating, reads her hand signals with alacrity and eagerly prepares all of her favorite dishes: dirt, bark and paint with a special straw.
The Colonel (Orson Bean), Violet's dad, is losing his memory, but this relentlessly chipper homemaker is always there to remind him of his identity and reassure him that all will be well as he takes the family's adorable little dog, Max, out for their morning constitutional.
The despair running under the surface of Haidle's play doesn't quite justify the sickly sweet way the characters interact. No one can make a move without saying a kind word to the unborn twins. Grandfather and granddaughter dance together in the kitchen. (They love each other so much it hurts.) Max is reported to have fallen in love with a cat.
This isn't an actual family — it's a playwriting conceit.
The second act brings a tonal shift, as the action moves inside Violet's womb just before delivery of the twins. Fetus One (Brill) and Fetus Two (Marks), dressed in red velvet jackets and bow ties, banter in the quick, smart-alecky manner of a comedy duo, one whose sophomoric humor would be right at home on the college circuit.
Fetus One is petrified of going out into the world. Fetus Two is frightened as well, but echoing his grandfather's words, he reminds his brother, "The greatest act of courage is to love."
No one could argue with such a sentiment. But put forth as directly as it is here, the effect is one of sentimentality — a sign that the writing isn't earning its emotion.
Haidle's flourishes of rambunctious comedy try to shift the focus away from the play's mawkishness. The trouble is that the whimsy isn't always well integrated or psychologically resonant. But then, as was also the case with Haidle's "Mr. Marmalade," another SCR production, the dramatic scheme matters more to the playwright than his characters.
When "Smokefall" skips ahead several decades to the reunion between Beauty, now 95 (and still played by the youthful-looking Corbett), and her 79-year-old brother Johnny (Bean), it's hard to get misty about characters whose lives are only meaningful to us in their existential outline.
Great resources (including apple pastry and cider served to audience members after the performance) have been thrown at this production, which is a central part of this year's Pacific Playwrights Festival. This is a testament to SCR's commitment to American playwrights. I wasn't too impressed with Haidle's "Saturn Returns" when I reviewed the 2009 SCR production, but I am impressed by the theater's loyalty to its writers. I can't help wishing, however, that this loyalty had resulted in a more textured drama.
The production, unfolding in a domestic environment (designed by Marsha Ginsberg) that cuts a provocative compromise between abstraction and realism, is kicked up a level by Bean's canny veteran performance. Marching around the house in a forgetful haze as the Colonel, he is the most adept cast member at making Haidle's cartoon sketches seem like flesh and blood, grounding the humor and the poignancy in lived truth.