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Surrealism takes flight in beautifully lyrical ‘Smokefall’

Mike Nussbaum (as Colonel) Katherine Keberle(as Violet) Eric Slater (as Daniel) 'Smokefall' Goodman Theatre. | PHOTO BY LIZ LAUREN

Mike Nussbaum (as the Colonel), Katherine Keberlein (as Violet) and Eric Slater (as Daniel) in "Smokefall" at the Goodman Theatre. | PHOTO BY LIZ LAUREN

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Highly recommended

When: Through Nov. 3

Where: Goodman Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn

Tickets : $10-$40

Info: (312) 443-3800;

Run time: 1 hour and 56 minutes, one intermission

Updated: October 16, 2013 5:37PM

From the very beginning, “the household” in Noah Haidle’s achingly sad, transcendently lovely new play “Smokefall” is off-kilter, even if on the surface it could not be more normal in its Midwestern way. And it is that tension — between the seemingly ideal structure of a family and the heartbreaking reality of its existence over several generations — that is at the root of this continually surprising, gently surreal, tragicomic story now unspooling on the Goodman Theatre’s Owen stage under the flawless direction of Anne Kauffman.

Haidle, whose play “Vigils” signaled the arrival of a playwright with a distinctly poetic voice and absurdist outlook, writes about the ordinary like no one else.

In “Smokefall,” he gives us a traditional marriage, between Daniel (Eric Slater) and Violet (willowy Katherine Keberlein, in a performance of tumultuous calm), that is infused with both love and denial, habit and restless discontent. The couple met and married young, and are the parents of a teenage daughter, Beauty (Catherine Combs, a young American version of Fellini’s Giulietta Masina), who has not spoken for three years, and eats newspaper and paint. Living with them in their Grand Rapids, Mich., home is Violet’s beloved 77-year-old dad, the Colonel (Mike Nussbaum), a widower who desperately misses his wife. Soon to arrive from an unplanned pregnancy are twin boys.

While Violet lovingly soldiers on, this whole existence proves too much for Daniel. And before the birth of the twins (unquestionably the most hilarious in-utero, existential vaudeville ever devised, wonderfully played by Slater and Guy Massey), he runs off.

So far, nothing extraordinary, apart from the enchanting quirkiness of Haidle’s world view, and his use of an all-knowing narrator dubbed “Footnote” (Massey). It is that clipped commentary that plays perfectly against the play’s abiding message that love, and the monumental courage it takes to sustain it, is the only thing that matters. Even when the house is shaken (Kevin Depinet’s touch-of-genius set echoes the family’s structural faults), life goes on. Another full generation emerges, ageless “Beauty” endures, fathers and sons fight, the bones of the dead are finally buried. To reveal more would be to spoil Haidle’s sleight-of-hand.

The cast is a marvel. And I have saved the miraculous Nussbaum for last only because he is so emblematic of the play’s homage to the life force itself. Nearing 90, Nussbaum easily is the youngest spirit on stage. And if you miss his brilliantly danced military exercise, his singing of bits of “Send in the Clowns,” or the pluck with which he bounds up and down stairs, you will have denied yourself a rare treat. Remarkable.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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