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Theater Review: “Smokefall”

Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company’s “Smokefall” plays through September 16, 2018 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).
Photo credit:
Daren Scott

Noah Haidle’s “Smokefall” is an oddball piece, let’s say that up front. A small play with big ideas, it starts in a peculiar household in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Violet (Jessica John), a wife very pregnant with twin sons, lives with her deeply unhappy husband Daniel (Francis Gercke), a daughter named Beauty (Fedra Ramirez Olivares), who eats dirt, drinks paint and refuses to speak, and Violet’s father Colonel (Antonio TJ Johnson), who used to be one, and is now sliding into dementia.

All of them seem to be looking for something and fearful that it either doesn’t exist or that they won’t find it.

The title comes from a T.S. Eliot poem, the family setting is reminiscent of Thornton Wilder, but the play is a strange combination of narration and philosophizing (with a little action tossed in). All the narrative points are called Footnotes and spoken by a character named Footnote (Brian Mackey). It’s not clear why Haidle decided to tell rather than show, but this is the weakest aspect of the script.

The story covers some seven decades. It begins in what I assume to be the present. The second act (are you ready for this?) takes place inside Violet’s womb, where the twins are preparing to make their grand entrance into the world. This is by far the funniest section, the boys attached to their neon-lit umbilical cords doing a little vaudeville routine (including a chorus of “Send in the Clowns”) and arguing about who’s going first. But even these unborn fetuses can’t help philosophizing. Fetus One (Francis Gercke, who also plays Daniel in the first act) is reluctant and claims to be “just a little worried about original sin,” while Fetus Two (Mackey) can’t wait to get out and see what’s there. “This is our invitation to the mystery of things,” he says.

Act III jumps around in time. The Colonel (Antonio TJ Johnson) is now the grown-up Fetus Two, i.e. Johnny, getting a birthday visit from his son Sam (the very busy Mackey). The lovely Beauty is still alive and beautiful, and looking young as ever though she’s now 95.

The arguments continue about original sin, genetic determinism, emotional bonds and why are we here, anyway?

I’m not providing the answer(s), but the title of Act III might give you a clue: “The Attempt Is How We Live.”

“Smokefall” is an ambitious, often rewarding play, well directed by Andrew Oswald and Francis Gercke and brilliantly performed by all.

The details

Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company’s “Smokefall” plays through September 16, 2018 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm.; Sunday at 2 pm.