(Costa Mesa, CA) April, 2013 – Life is never easy and it’s rarely understandable and simple. Famous writers of all mediums---prose, poetry, plays, and screenplays---have been trying to figure out life, its meaning, and its challenges for uncounted years. These literary geniuses include William Shakespeare, Herman Melville (ah, that white whale), Edger Allen Poe (“Nevermore”), Ray Bradbury, Thornton Wilder, Douglas Adams (The answer is “42” apparently) and Monty Python (the image of Eric Idle strolling through infinity singing “The Universe Song” will be forever burned into the minds of physics and philosophy undergraduates everywhere). But rarely does a playwright capture the emotional frailties of the human condition, how one faces life’s challenges headfirst, no matter how tough (or in some cases, weird) it gets. A character in Noah Haidle’s latest dramatic creation at South Coast Repertory, Smokefall, sums it up with perfect simplicity: “All things change, and we change with them.” Led by the brilliant Orson Bean, Smokefall is a profound, surreal theatrical ride about family, life, and even the joys of apple pie.
On the surface, all is well at the Michigan family home of Daniel (Corey Brill) and Violet (Heidi Dippold): Violet is pregnant with twins; Daniel’s job is flourishing; their teenage daughter Beauty (Carmela Corbett) is thriving in school; and Violet’s aging father aptly named The Colonel (Orson Bean) is well taken care of. But then a Thornton Wilder/Stage Manager-type of narrator called Footnote (Leo Marks) reveals the unhappiness that each family member faces: Violet is physically neglected by Daniel; Daniel is about to abandon his own family; Beauty hasn’t spoken for three years and eats dirt and paint for nourishment; and The Colonel’s dementia is getting worse with each passing minute. The story then delves into the delightfully surreal as a pair of unborn twin babies have a philosophical debate about the positives and negatives of being born, including discussing literary theory by Michel Foucault and singing “Send in the Clowns.” The play soon ends with a 95 year old Beauty (who mysteriously doesn’t age at all) reuniting with one of her twin brothers (aged 79, who does look his age) after traveling the world for almost 65 years.
This three-act production wisely continues without an intermission at a brisk, but not rushed, 90 minutes, due to Haidle’s intelligently imaginative dialogue and Anne Kauffman’s tight direction. To interrupt this triptych would have spoiled the poetic beauty of the story, as though a fifteen minute break was added in the middle of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. The transitions from one act to another is absolutely flawless, most notably Orson Bean’s hilarious “magic trick” he conducts after the first act.
But it is the poignant acting that provides the necessary links for this theatrical “chain”. Dippold’s Violet is a painful portrayal of longing, confusion and matriarchal loyalty. Corbett demonstrates silent power as a mute in the first act and then shows conflicted turmoil in the third act as an older woman. Her scenes with Bean in both acts are heartbreaking; their chemistry together is magical. Both Brill and Marks expertly demonstrate their ability to capture both of their dual roles. Brill mixes Daniel’s tragic selfishness with empathy, while also hilariously portraying the insecurity of the unborn Samuel. Marks’s Footnote exudes a likable, vaudevillian type of showman confidence (like a young Orson Bean. Subtle hint, there.) as the narrator of the play, a confidence that translates well when he plays the self-assured unborn twin, Johnny.
And then there is Orson Bean’s dual portrayal of The Colonel and the aging Johnny, which serves as the solid hub to this "wagon wheel" of a cast. As a veteran of stage and screen, Bean's ability to combine his memorable comic timing and with his sense of dramatic flair is practically legendary. He captures the confusion and frustration of The Colonel’s dementia with incredible potency, but avoids being maudlin by intertwining self-deprecating humor into the mix. And as the ever-hopeful Johnny, Bean mixes a subtle pain with endearing flavors of wisdom, a wisdom that penetrates his lost sister’s soul with each passing minute. At 84 years old, Bean is an absolute wonder to behold and his performance in Smokefall is a true testament of his artistry in both drama and comedy. By the end of the play, all elements---the writing, direction, and acting---are mixed together, slowly baked, and patiently served like one of the apple pies that feature in the show, continuing to tantalize its audience through its run at South Coast Reparatory.
Smokefall opens April 6-28, 2013
South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage
655 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by Ben Horak (Twins photo only) and Henry DiRocco