Philosophers and playwrights like to tackle big questions, though when a playwright writes like a philosopher it takes a special audience to appreciate the result. Noah Haidle’s play, Smokefall, eloquently challenges that special audience and those who rise to the challenge will be richly rewarded. And, the troupe from Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company will present themselves as a major part of that reward.
The questions posed in Smokefall are as basic as existence itself: why was I born, what will I do with my life, what, ultimately will be its meaning? Ever lurking is the idea of original sin: to what extent do I bear the collective guilt associated with the knowledge of good and evil? Mr. Haidle loads them up on a middle-class family over a period of generations.
When we meet the family, Violet (Jessica John) is pregnant with twin boys and is about to give birth. In her Grand Rapids, Michigan home lives her husband, Daniel (Francis Gercke), her father, the Colonel (Antonio TJ Johnson), and her daughter, Beauty (Fedra Ramirez). Only, things are odd: Daniel pretends to lead a middle-class working life but plots to run away, the Colonel is demented and in need to constant attention, and Beauty has decided to stop speaking and give herself a diet of dirt and rocks. An apple tree in the yard has died without warning.
All this need explaining, so Mr. Haidle has provided a narrator (Brian Mackey) to do so, at least to a degree.
Act 2 takes place in Violet’s womb as the twins are waiting to be born. They turn out to be prescient about the lives they have ahead of them.
Act 3 returns to the Grand Rapids house, 74 years later. An apple tree has come up through the floor. One of the twins (Mr. Johnson) lives in the house. His estranged son, Samuel (Mr. Mackey) arrives home for his father’s birthday. Beauty returns as an old woman. They eat apples from the tree and receive knowledge of good and evil in a way that moves the philosophical discussion into the background and love into the foreground.
Backyard Renaissance was founded by actors, and the company tends to produce plays that provide challenges for the acting company. Each of the actors rises to the challenges in ways that make the whole larger than the sum of its parts. While I appreciated each performance, I especially admired Mr. Johnson’s ability to shift gears so completely between the Colonel and his grandson (as an old man).
A smokefall is a stage effect that is used to create atmosphere or to obscure something. In this production , the company’s first as part of a year-long residency at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, Mr. Haidle’s words are the smokefall and the production works to clear it. Credit the efforts of Mr. Gercke and Andrew Oswald (co-directors), Justin Humphries (scenic designer), Curtis Mueller (lighting designer), Jeanne Reith (costume designer), Melanie Chen Cole (sound designer), Rachel Hengst (props designer) and Katie Banville (choreographer) in letting the smokefall wash over, allowing love to emerge above all else.
And, if audiences can let go of following the philosophical argument and allow the love to come through, Smokefall will prove to be a memorable theatre-going experience.