Man, woman, birth, death, infinity.

The spirit of Thornton Wilder is alive and well and living inside playwright Noah Haidle, whose remarkable Smokefall, now getting its World Premiere at South Coast Repertory, bears comparison with Wilder’s Our Town and The Skin Of Our Teeth.

smokefallmini2sm Like Our Town, Smokefall features a ubiquitous, all-knowing Narrator, whom Haidle calls “Footnote” (Leo Marks), since it is in numbered footnotes that he comments on the action, his words reminiscent of those spoken in Our Town by its “Stage Manager.” Take “Footnote Number One” as an example: “The Grace Episcopal church is well over two hundred years old, making it the oldest building in Grand Rapids. The bells themselves were imported from France. They toll the hours away and everybody hears them in town. No matter how hard they try not to. They are the metronome of their lives. Hour by hour.” Very Grovers Corners. Very Thornton Wilder.

smokepro1sm In place of The Skin Of Our Teeth’s Antrobus family, we have head-of-household Daniel (Corey Brill), his pregnant-with-twins wife Violet (Heidi Dippold), their sixteen-year-old daughter Beauty (Carmela Corbett), and the Colonel (Orson Bean), Violet’s elderly grandfather who lives with them. There’s also Max, the family pet, played to perfection by real-life pooch Sparky (though the program gets their names backwards).

smokepro10sm Though at first glance, these folk might seem to be your average Midwest family circa 1960something, Footnote’s footnotes reveal cracks in their apple-pie surface. Beauty, we are told, suddenly stopped speaking three years ago, her last words being simply, “I have nothing more to say.” Max, we learn, has fallen in love, “completely and hopelessly in love with the neighbor’s cat” and “for the first time in his life … knows the painful agonies of love.” Since the Colonel’s memory isn’t what it used to be, “the truth is that Max is the one who walks him, because without Max, the Colonel could not find his way home.” Violet sings a self-composed lullaby to her about-to-pop twins, to which, Footnote notes, “The twins applaud. They would give a standing ovation if they could.” And as for Daniel, we soon learn that “lying in bed at night, he makes lists in his head of all of his reasons to be grateful, but they only temporarily relieve his general sense of dread and malaise.” Today, Footnote tells us, will be the last one Daniel spends with his family, and this is not the only glimpse into the future that our narrator will offer over the course of Smokefall’s eighty-five minute, intermissionless three acts.

An air of whimsy pervades Smokefall from the get-go. Take the case of Beauty, whom “everyone calls Beauty, and nobody really remembers her name, not even her.” It doesn’t get much more whimsical than a character who “eats very strange things like paste and cardboard …, bark from trees, grass, earth, maple leaves, coffee grounds, envelopes, and the newspaper” and “seems to be perfectly fine, if not thriving, so nobody pays much attention to it anymore.”

If Act One, “What Hours They Forgot,” is whimsical, this is even more true of Act Two, “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” which takes us inside Betsy’s womb with Brill and Marks as Fetus One and Fetus Two, an adult-sized duo who speak with the wisdom of the sages (“As descendents of Adam, as a consequence of the first sin, of this transgressed hereditary strain, we will be born into an absence of holiness and perfect charity”), duet “Send In The Clowns,” and alternately annoy and adore each other as you might expect two fetuses living in close proximity for nine months to do.

smokepro11sm Act Three, “Awake In The Reality Of Experience,” features Bean as Johnny, i.e. Fetus Two “grown up and grown old,” and Corbett as a now 95-year-old Beauty looking every bit as young as she did at sixteen, and able to tell us in actual spoken words about the years she spent traveling the world following Betsy’s funeral sixty-five years earlier.

My best guess is that all this whimsy may prove too much for some theatergoers. This reviewer had a bit of a knee-jerk resistance to characters who drink paint and converse inside a womb and keep getting interrupted by “footnotes.”

smokepro3sm Fortunately, thanks to a script brimming with humanity and heart, pitch-perfect direction by Anne Kauffman, exquisite performances by the entire cast, and a magical scenic design, this co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre won me over fairly quickly. Smokefall may be whimsical to the nth degree, but its characters and their assorted destinies touched my heart and made me ponder life’s mysteries in ways that The Skin Of Our Teeth and Our Town have done for the past seventy to seventy-five years. (Since Thornton Wilder wrote only two plays, Smokefall sort of makes it a trilogy.)

Bean brings a lifetime of experience (and our shared memories of his six decades on stage and screen) to both the increasingly forgetful yet endearing Colonel and the equally aged yet still vital Johnny, letter-perfect performances that belie the actor’s eighty-four years.

Corbett’s incandescence makes her the ideal choice to play Beauty, and whether expressing herself in silence or in spoken words (without the slightest trace of her native English accent), her work here is as indelible as it was in last year’s Eurydice.

smokepro6sm Dippold is maternal warmth and wifely caring personified as Violet, and having previously starred in Haidle’s Mr. Marmelade, she captures the playwright’s voice to perfection.

Brill invests Daniel with a heartbreaking sadness beneath his outwardly “I’m all right, we’re all right” attitude, making his transition to Fetus One all the more remarkable.

Marks, too, gets a pair of night-and-day different parts, the wry, wise, witty Footnote, and the mischievous, adventurous Fetus Two, both of which he nails, as he has every role I’ve seen him in to date.

Together, Fetus Brill and Fetus Marks are so captivating and touching, their Act Two could easily stand on its own as a one-act.

If the South Coast Rep ensemble is made up of gifted L.A.-based talents (thanks to casting director Joanne DeNaut, CSA), Smokefall’s superb design team are all out-of-town imports whose work makes this World Premiere co-production all the more stunning.

smokepro5sm Scenic designer Martha Ginsberg’s two-story Grand Rapids home looks deceptively simple, an oversized dollhouse made all of blond wood, but it does amazing, earth-shattering things. Melanie Watnick’s costumes, David Weiner’s lighting, and Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design contribute to making Smokefall every bit the design equal to SCR productions featuring more familiar local names.

John Glore is dramaturg, Joshua Marchesi production manager, and Jamie A. Tucker stage manager.

Smokefall is one of seven plays featured in this year’s SCR Pacific Playwrights’ Festival, five of which will be presented in one-time only readings (from April 26 to 28) for consideration in future SCR seasons, the other two anchoring the festival as fully staged productions. (Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman opens shortly.)

Though its abundance of whimsy might at first prove a tad off-putting to more reality-minded theatergoers, by the time Smokefall has reached its final, transcendent moments, those who have been willing to take the journey Haidle has charted will have found themselves richly rewarded.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
April 9, 2013
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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