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On Theater: 'Smokefall' as puzzling as its name

April 08, 2013|By Tom Titus
  • Orson Bean, Corey Brill, Carmela Corbett and Heidi Dippold in South Coast Repertory's 2013 world premiere production of "Smokefall" by Noah Haidle.
Orson Bean, Corey Brill, Carmela Corbett and Heidi Dippold… (Henry DiRocco |…)

When playwright Noah Haidle was constructing his latest concoction, "Smokefall," now premiering at South Coast Repertory, it's quite possible that he was haunted by the spirit of Thornton Wilder, whose influence pervades this circuitous modern fantasy.

Not only does Wilder's "stage manager" device for his classic play "Our Town" appear in the form of what Haidle calls "Footnote," to narrate the current action and forecast the future, but the third segment of this brief triptych descends to the level of absurdist artistic chaos found in Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." Impressive inspiration, since both won Pulitzer Prizes.

Haidle certainly is no stranger to SCR. His "Mr. Marmalade" and "Princess Marjorie" both premiered here, and the Costa Mesa company also produced his "Saturn Returns," probably his best effort of the three. So now we know what to expect, namely the unexpected, when Haidle's name appears on a program.

In "Smokefall" (the title is unexplained), however, Haidle seems to have gone around the bend much like his goofy elderly character, the Colonel, who dresses in uniform each day and takes the family dog for a walk — so that he can find his way home.

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After an opening segment that borders on normalcy, introducing the eccentric characters of an off-the-wall middle-American Midwestern family, Haidle heads to Fantasyland. Part Two consists of two unborn twins waxing eloquent on philosophical matters, while the third element breaks all boundaries of rhyme and reason.

Directed by Anne Kauffman, "Smokefall" effectively skewers the family unit as it introduces the Colonel, as well as a pregnant mother, her mute daughter, who consumes dirt and paint, an uncommunicative father and the aforementioned "Footnote."

Veteran actor Orson Bean heads the cast as the old codger, gingerly feeling his way through life in an engaging performance. Heidi Dippold acts the "glowing" mother and mom-to-be with a sunny disposition that seems out of sync with her surroundings.

Her teenage daughter, known as Beauty (Carmela Corbett), stopped talking three years before because, as she put it, "I have nothing more to say." She does, however, rediscover her voice late in the play when she returns dressed like Nanook of the North for a chat with Bean's character, now known as Johnny.

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