Just as the audience member at Smokefall is greeted by the sight of a cross section of a house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so the passage of Noah Haidle’s absorbing play takes us through a cross section of time—around 80 years—and, within that, a deep and feeling cross section of a family’s life.
Those who book tickets to this MCC production—at the off-Broadway Lucille Lortel Theatre—may be attracted by the boldface name of Hollywood star Zachary Quinto, but every performance in Smokefall is as rich and nuanced as Haidle’s writing, Anne Kauffman’s direction, and Mimi Lien’s inventive scenic design.
No family is ordinary, despite how ordinary that family may seem. Its extraordinariness, its members’ extraordinariness—their lies, secrets, desires, inner tragedies—is there, embedded in the home’s four walls. In this, Smokefall shares narrative echoes with another off-Broadway play about the nature of family, Stephen Karam’s The Humans, that has transferred to Broadway this season.
In Smokefall, the matriarch, Violet (Robin Tunney), is very pregnant with twins; her husband, Daniel (Brian Hutchison), is a white-collar guy feeling detached from his wife; and their daughter, Beauty (Taylor Richardson), who has been mute for three years, eats earth and drinks paint. Violet plants an apple tree outside.
The Colonel (Tom Bloom) is Violet’s aging father, kind, proudly horny, and—in random skips—losing his mental faculties. Quinto first plays Footnote, a character who interrupts the action to tell us, in footnotes, what is really taking place beneath the surface; through Footnote, Haidle filters the play’s dual tones of humor and pathos.
Footnote’s interjectional meta-narrative isn’t the only clever, not-at-all annoying storytelling device of Haidle’s: The male actors in the production also double, and in Quinto’s case triple, up to play other family members as time progresses.
If, as it should, Smokefall goes to Broadway, like The Humans did, it may take on a bigger set, a bigger house—but that sizing up one hopes would only maximize, rather than lessen, its profound impact.
The first offstage earthquake that Footnote reveals is the departure of Daniel from the family home: The audience knows this, as it watches Daniel leave for work. He whispers something to the twins in Violet’s womb, again revealed to us by Footnote, and Beauty seems to know instinctively he shall not return; Richardson is as affecting when quiet as she is when she finally speaks.
This domestic earthquake may seem the catalyst for all the rippling dysfunction that affects Daniel’s children (and possibly his grandchildren and beyond) for years after. Beauty too leaves and only returns—looking exactly as she did as a young teenager—aged 95.
Tunney skillfully conveys both deep maternal love and a careworn forbearance, while Quinto inhabits each of his very different roles with fluency and depth. Bloom plays two differently intriguing old men, both united in a desire to make sense of the past and present swirling about them.
The day Daniel (Hutchison plays him with a wrenching inscrutability) leaves, Violet’s water breaks, and in one of the play’s most stunning—visually and lyrically—sequences, what was an upstairs bedroom of the home is transformed into Violet’s womb, with red velvet curtains and flickering light bulbs as the outside world beckons for the twins, played in clown suits by Hutchison and Quinto.
In the womb, this comedy-and-tragedy double act bicker about original sin.
They fiercely love each other, they give each other little clown-like punches and jabs. One reveals to the other what their father said to them that day, one is terrified of what birth might mean, the other wants to get out there, to experience the world, to love, to embrace being human and humanity.
In the womb, Haidle brilliantly imagines the twins—like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot—interrogating the meaning of life, piercingly, absurdly, and seriously.
The second half of the play throws forward to the present day. One of Violet’s twins is a father himself, played by Bloom. Quinto plays his son, returning home—another escapee from this house, whose very walls have crumbled.
The apple tree Violet planted has now busted through—red apples dangling—into the home’s interior, which seems to imply the sins of a family’s past are inescapable. Certainly, this is what Quinto as Samuel the grandson rows about with his father, Johnny.
The play deftly switches back in time, to revisit Daniel’s first visits to court Violet. These switches from past to present are conveyed in simple tricks of lighting, and the switching between roles of the actors assumes its own significance if one considers how likenesses of all kinds can be shared between generations of a family unknown to each other.
Just as the unborn twins reach an impasse in their argument in the womb—eventually nature simply forces them to act—so Haidle implies in Smokefall that whatever individual family members do, and however our loved ones err, fail, and injure those closest to them, the notion of family, and a family’s history and love, will persist.
This is both a grand and not-grand notion. It is there in the repetition of Violet’s routine that opens the play as she prepares breakfast for her loved ones, from the weary and familiar setting out of placemats onward.
And her loved ones are loved—fiercely—as the most emphatic lines in the play spoken by Violet to her children, born and unborn, illustrate.
Somehow, the members of this family, defying time, make it home—and with deep feeling rather than easy sentimentalism. They are not riven with deep dysfunction. Their demons are hidden, the damage is hidden. But life also continues. The lights are on. There’s somebody home.
Smokefall is at the Lucille Lortel Theater until March 20. Book here.