Monday, March 25, 2013

Three Short Acts, Three Generations of a Family Experiencing Change

"It's a Monday in mid-autumn, which is its own season. The leaves are already falling. People are making pumpkin pies and hot apple cider. Girls are wearing sweaters for the first time this year. We're a family again on the newest day."

Playwright Noah Haidle
So says an old man called The Colonel, as morning breaks in Noah Haidle's Smokefall. The play is a theatrical triptych, using three short acts to tell the story of three generations of a middle-American family living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They might easily be mistaken for typical at first, but thanks to Haidle's fertile imagination and his willingness to set aside the conventions of the realistic play, this family and its story are full of surprises.

In act one, we meet the family members as they move through their morning routines on what will prove to be anything but a routine day. Mother Violet, stands solidly at the center of the family, despite the fact that she is nine months pregnant with twins and must contend with an elderly father—The Colonel—who suffers from dementia, a teenage daughter with eccentric habits, and a husband struggling to reconcile himself to a life he hadn't bargained for. Even the family dog, Max, has an unexpected inner life. We know this because of the ongoing commentary provided by a character known as Footnote. A sort of existential narrator, Footnote gives us glimpses of the truth hiding beneath the surface of this family's life.

By way of a morning greeting to Violet's unborn twins, The Colonel quotes a favorite Latin aphorism: "All things change, and we change with them." Yet seeming to contradict him, the family's morning rituals proceed as they always have. But then change does descend upon the family, abruptly and momentously, as the first act comes to a close.

The second act introduces two members of the family whom we haven't met before, engaged in a kind of philosophical argument—part Platonic dialogue, part vaudeville comedy routine—about the meaning and value of life. Their debate is hilariously funny, but the stakes could not be higher, and when it ends—forced to a conclusion by outside events—the theoretical argument yields a real-life choice that has far-reaching effects.

In fact, those effects continue to ripple through the final act of the play, which takes place many, many years after the first two. It depicts a reunion and a moment of reckoning shared by brother and sister. The house in Grand Rapids still stands, but nature has begun to reclaim it. The family struggles on, although many of its members have gone the way of all flesh. Footnote makes a brief return appearance—a character who exists outside of time, a dispassionate observer of the tolling bell and the toll taken. In this final chapter of the family saga, time becomes fluid—past, present and future commingle in the house—as the play moves toward an answer to the question it has implicitly asked all along: What makes life worth living?

Running its course in about 90 minutes, Smokefall is a compact play with big matters on its mind. Haidle openly acknowledges his artistic debt to the great American dramatist, Thornton Wilder, whose masterpiece, Our Town, asks similar questions in a similarly unconventional way.

And as Smokefall comes to its conclusion, the simple words spoken by the Colonel at its beginning remain true, but resonate in a very different way: "It's a Monday in mid-autumn, which is its own season… We're a family again on the newest day."

Noah Haidle and SCR: A Long-term Relationship

Playwright Noah Haidle and director Anne Kauffman in rehearsal for the 2012 Pacific Playwrights Festival reading of Smokefall.
Smokefall marks SCR's fourth production, and third world premiere, of a Noah Haidle play.

Haidle began his professional career at SCR in 2004 (while still a playwriting fellow at The Juilliard School), when his play, Mr. Marmalade, was one of two productions featured in the 7th Annual Pacific Playwrights Festival (PPF). Now Smokefall serves as a cornerstone of the 16th Pacific Playwrights Festival; a co-production with the Goodman Theatre—which commissioned it—the play will move on to Chicago in the fall.

Anne Kauffman, who directed last year's PPF reading of Smokefall, returns to stage the production. A sought-after director—particularly for new plays—Kauffman spends most of her time directing at some of the finest theatres in New York. This is her first production at SCR.

Kauffman has assembled a cast of SCR familiars and one newcomer. Heidi Dippold plays Violet; she earlier portrayed a mother with a very different set of problems in the world premiere of Mr. Marmalade.

As her husband, Daniel, Corey Brill makes his second SCR appearance in a role that bears little resemblance to his Mr. Darcy in last season's Pride and Prejudice.

Carmela Corbett, who took on the title role in Eurydice to open the Argyros season, will play Daniel and Violet's daughter—nicknamed "Beauty".

And narrating their inner lives is Leo Marks as Footnote, returning to SCR after playing the bemused archivist in Julia Cho's The Language Archive three years ago.

Making his SCR debut in the role of The Colonel, the one newcomer in the cast may nevertheless be a very familiar face to many in the audience. Orson Bean was a fixture for years on "To Tell the Truth" and other popular game shows in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and has continued his prolific career with hundreds of appearances on "The Tonight Show" and roles on "Desperate Housewives" and other popular television series. Bean starred on Broadway for 20 years, winning a Theater World Award and a Tony Award nomination in the process. As a veteran of stage and screen, Bean has learned how not to be upstaged by a dog, which will prove useful for his frequent interactions with the canine Max, also making his SCR debut in the role of "Max."

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