REVIEW: SMOKEFALL at Benchmark Theater 

by Owen Niland

Smokefall by Noah Haidle

Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.

  • from Four Quartets by T.S. Elliot

Playwright Noah Haidle is noted to have found inspiration for his play SMOKEFALL in the above lines from T.S. Elliot’s poem Four Quartets.  The wistful lyrics awash with a yearning for something lost in time, a something that may never have been there in the first time, but is longed for nonetheless.  The essence of Smokefall can be felt reading the lines above, the play is whisper of story about the lives, loves and losses of four generations of one non-descript family over the course of 85 years.

A story arching across so many generations and over such a swath of time should feel epic, but here, through unique structure and storytelling, our relationship to the family maintains a sense of closeness.  

We begin the day with mother Violet (Suzie Scott), daughter Beauty (Sarai Brown), dad Daniel (Matthew Blood-Smyth), Violet’s father known only as the Colonel (Chris Kendall), and an interloper to the family’s morning routine – an invisible young man commenting on the family like a one-man Greek chorus – identified in the program only as Footnote (John Hauser).  

It is through Footnote’s “footnotes” that the audience learns the truth about this unnamed family.  Violet, pregnant with twins, is trapped in a crumbling marriage with Daniel, her once loving husband who has allowed life to grind him down to where a bare smile is a herculean effort.  This fighting between Violet and Daniel has forced daughter Beauty to retreat inward, rendering herself voiceless, and taking on some decidedly bizarre dietary restrictions, while Grandfather “the Colonel’s” Alzheimer’s forces him to relive the pain of loss each day when he is reminded of his beloved wife’s death.

It becomes apparent quickly, that the play’s structure, symbolism, and dialogue exist within heightened artistic realm.   Your enjoyment of the play may depend on your ability to digest bizarre situations played out against a backdrop of normalcy (an apple tree grown into a house; a girl who eats dirt and drinks only paint), and somewhat portentous lines such as “We’re making breakfast for the family.  Do you know what a family is?” or “You told me that every love story is a tragedy, because its ending is built into its beginning.”  For my part, once I let go any expectation of reality or naturalism in the production, the ride became much more enjoyable.  

The primary reason for the structure’s success here (if you buy into it) is the use of the same five actors as recurring characters at multiple points in their lives, and then again as their descendants, with later generations echoing the thoughts and feelings of the former.  

The story continues through Act II as the audience gets an very intimate visit with Violet’s twins, Fetus One and Fetus Two, played with a palpable (if tethered) vitality by Blood-Smyth (formerly dad Daniel) and Hauser (formerly Footnote), as they share their final minutes in-utero.  Act III reconnects us many years later in the same family home with a world-weary Fetus Two now known as Johnny and played by Kendall (formerly the Colonel), tending a massive apple tree that has invaded the home.  We then find Johnny’s son Samuel, played by Hauser (formerly Footnote, formerly Fetus Two), returning for Johnny’s birthday, and the return of ageless daughter/sister/aunt Beauty (still played by 16 year-old Brown), sets the stage for a series of flashbacks and monologues which bring the audience up-to-date on the intervening 80-odd years.

In the hands of a less capable company Smokefall would collapse under its own weight of storytelling, dialogue and character nuance, but here Benchmark’s production takes the story and makes it sing.  

Director Rachel Rogers has brought together an ensemble cast that warmly welcomes the audience into the family’s story.  Much of the hard work in the opening scenes falls to Footnote, where Hauser’s natural, unforced charm goes a long way to warming the audience to the oddball routine of the family.  

Kendall’s Colonel and later Johnny are two sides to the same coin; channeling pain both forgotten (in the Colonel’s case) and pain all to present (in the case of Johnny).  Similarly, Brown’s takes Beauty, who in less capable hands could be a one-note character of tics and strangeness, and makes her journey described in Act III a touchstone for the audience to reconnect with the family’s history.  Scott’s Violet is a vulnerable, yet strong daughter and mother, tirelessly working for her family in the face of strident challenges.

The interplay between Blood-Smyth and Hauser’s Fetuses One & Two is the real standout to the production.  The two actors’ effortless intimacy between the brothers is what really invests the audience into the family.  The bare innocence and trepidation Blood-Smyth brings to Fetus One and the unbridled excitement for life of Hauser’s Fetus Two, infuses the family’s tragedies and joys with a sense of place.  It’s the connection the audience finds with the twins that brings a weight to the production that grounds the remaining story and brings into focus a sense of what was lost in the prior scenes.  Without such a well paired duo, the play would have suffered grievously.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for some sentimentality and magic as we stride through this holiday season that doesn’t rest on flying reindeer and virgin births, you’ll find it in an unexpected package with SMOKEFALL.

SMOKEFALL by Noah Haidle, produced by Benchmark Theater plays through December 23rd at the Buntport Theater at 717 Lipan Street, Denver.  Tickets at http://www.benchmarktheatre.com.

 

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