'Smokefall': The Noise Between the Silence
It's fitting that South Coast Repertory is staging the world premiere of Noah Haidle's heartbreaker of a play, Smokefall, because years earlier, Jerry Patch, SCR's former literary manager, told me that every great play, in some fashion, has to do with home.
That holds up for most plays, but rarely is it approached from as many different angles as in Smokefall. There is a literal home in which the play is staged. There is a female's womb, in which one engrossing scene is played out. There is a metaphysical home, with each character struggling with his or her place in the cosmos. And, finally, there is the search for home or a place in the ever-elusive stream of time. In fact, the concept of home is so engrained into the fiber of this play that, much like the critically acclaimed HBO show The Wire, in which the city of Baltimore was truly the main character, the actual house in Smokefall can be seen in similar fashion. It's the center of gravity that the elliptical orbits of the characters spin around, embracing and defying it, cherishing and fleeing from it.
There are echoes of T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett, even a hint of Sam Shepard, in Haidle's play, with its constant allusions to time, existential angst and wanderlust. But make no mistake: The real genius at work here stems from the frenetic imagination of Haidle, an astonishingly talented playwright who has proven, with plays such as Princess Marjorie and Mr. Marmalade, he is a writer with vision and voice. This may be his best to date. The play's ideas soar into the stratosphere, and its time-bending, character-shifting structure always seems to be throwing something new and fascinating at the audience, but it's also firmly grounded in the business of being alive. It is a play with an enormous heart, which makes the breaking of that heart all the more emotionally arresting.
Smokefall at South Coast Repertory's Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30
We begin in what scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg has created to resemble a dollhouse of sorts, a two-story, wood-paneled structure with four rooms whose innards appear exposed. The play's narrator, called Footnote, gives us the lowdown on the four main characters: Violet, a very pregnant woman; Daniel, her husband, whom we are told quite early on will never see his family again; Beauty, an apparently well-adjusted teenager who just happens to eat dirt and newspapers and hasn't spoken a word in years; and Violet's father, a salty septuagenarian named the Colonel who is slowly losing his grasp on reality.
The impending birth of Violet's twin boys is obviously the centerpiece of this family dynamic, and while all four characters eagerly await the new arrivals, there is an undeniable tension at work. We come to learn, through the ubiquitous presence of Footnote, the twins were a mistake, and they are absorbing everything they hear. This leads to the hilarious—and sobering—second scene. The twins, grown men (played by Corey Brill, who also plays Daniel, and Leo Marks, who also plays Footnote) dressed in red-velvet dinner jackets and bowties, swear and bicker with each other and even have a trace of vaudeville in their rapport. They are quite advanced for fetuses, arguing about everything from Original Sin and post-structuralism to Dostoyevsky and the meaning of family. One is more optimistic than the other, who contributes the searing line that "Every life is just a little bit of noise between two silences." But there is also an unbreakable bond between them; whatever happens "out there," they swear undying devotion to each other—which makes what happens next so shocking and dreadful.
Things get even weirder, if that's possible, in the third scene. The Colonel (played by Orson Bean—yes, that Orson Bean) is now a man named Johnny, whose reason for being is to take care of a tree that has grown so large it has forced its way into the house. But Johnny is also a 79-year-old digging his own grave who is visited for the first time in years by the now-quite-vocal Beauty (Carmela Corbett). Time is bending, characters are shifting, but even amid the often hilarious exchanges, there is a brooding sense of the avenger that is time lurking, ready to cast everything in its eternal shadow. Haidle seems to be stumbling for a satisfying conclusion, but he doesn't appear to pull it off—until you enter the lobby at the show's end and everything is brought full circle.
It's heavy and heady, but it's also filled with great humor, excellent performances all around, and a wonderful set-design trick pulled off by the aforementioned Ginsberg and director Anne Kauffman. What Haidle seems to be saying with Smokefall isn't revelatory; it's something every artist—hell, every human—struggles with: how to fill that noise between the two moments of silence. And, ultimately, it might boil down to what some hippie was alluding to in John 9:4: Work while the day is long, for the night of death cometh when no man can work.
But while this isn't exactly new dramaturgical ground, the way Haidle says it is profound, powerful and achingly sincere. We should all count ourselves fortunate that the noise Haidle is making between his two silences is music for the soul—in all its bitterness, in all its sweetness.
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