REVIEWSREVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams



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Directed by Anne Kauffman

At the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Stage

A drama of life and love ponders the question is life worth living?

Playwright Noah Haidle’s Smokefall is a tedious affair that is structured like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town with a surreal absurdist tone similar to Samuel Beckett’s work. Set in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Smokefall explores the passage of time and the small pleasures of life from three generations of one family.  With a narrator setting the time and tone, we meet Violet (Katherine Keberlain) the matriarch pregnant with twins as she prepares breakfast at 7 AM. Her teenage daughter Beauty (Catherine Combs) doesn’t speak, eats dirt and drinks paint. Her father the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum) suffers from dementia as he survives on his daily routine. The father and husband to Violet in a loveless marriage is Daniel (Eric Slater).

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We see the tedium of the daily rhythms of life. The tone here vividly depicts the stifling effects of routine. Daniel runs away as he can’t live with his choices that produced the dullness of his life. We empathize with the Colonel’s plight. Mike Nussbaum, now nearing 90 years old gives a terrific performance that is both funny and poignant as the Colonel and later as Johnny.  We wonder why Beauty doesn’t speak and love to eat non-foods and we empathize with Violet as she struggles to keep the family afloat.

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Just as the daily family life becomes mundane, we see a much too long scene that has Guy Massey and Eric Slater playing Johnny and Samuel as fetuses bonding just before their birth. Playwright Haidle uses vaudevillian schtick to debate the merits of sibling bonding and the nature and meaning of existence. While this scene is funny and telling, it droned on and on until i was ready to scream!

Act two finds the time many years later as we see the next generation, still living in the same house but with an apple tree growing inside. The cycle of life and the struggle to find love and peace dominate. But I found the play stiff and lacking in substance as it gets caught too much with symbols. Kevin Depinet’s set services the production well. The cast did yeoman work but the structure and the script was weighted down with redundancy and repetition as the cycles of life are played out. The play’s central question: “is life worth living?” is never adequately answered. The audience at the performance I attended only gave the show a lukewarm applause.  There were some fine moments but not enough for success.

Somewhat Recommended

Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: October 16, 2013

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout the Smokefall page at

At the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3800,, tickets $10 -$40, Tuesdays thru Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 & 7:30 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission,through November 3, 2013

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