SMOKEFALL, by Backyard Renaissance and playing through September 16th is a dark comedy that is looking to explore some weighty topics.
The play, written by Noah Haidle, opens with a narrator character called Footnote (Brian Mackey) introducing the family, the events, and the area to the audience in a way that feels like Rod Serling speaking the opening to “The Twilight Zone”. Violet (Jessica John) who is pregnant with twins is making breakfast in the family home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She speaks to the twins while she makes breakfast for her family; her father the Colonel (Antonio TJ Johnson) a man who has advanced senility and her daughter Beauty, a girl who stopped speaking years ago and subsists only by eating things like dirt, tree bark, and drinking paint, and her husband Daniel (Francis Gercke).
Daniel unbeknownst to the rest of the family is planning on leaving them that day by driving to work and never coming back. It is this action that ripples through the rest of the show for the remaining characters and their actions to come.
We know all of this because Footnote tells us all of this. He numerically labels and explains many things about the family, their actions, their past and their future, and fills in the audience on the characters thoughts and feelings. The characters in Haidle’s play don’t do much, it’s all so much more tell rather than show.
Daniel feels the twins “Are mistakes and they suspect as much,” “Footnote number 10, Recently he’s been reading self-help books and even though it’s reductive and a little hokey, Daniel really believes in an eternal present and tries too hard to live in each moment,” or “Footnote number 13, the Colonel also watches public television, not because he can’t sleep, but because most afternoons the silence scares him.”
The play’s highlight is in the second act is when the twins (Mackey and Gercke) in utero have fun and playful banter that twists and turns into a song and dance to “Send in The Clowns,” and a debate over which one gets the preferred name of Samuel, to arguing over original sin and the inheritability of guilt, and weighty philosophical ideals. As the labor progresses they have to prepare to enter the world and what started on a comedic note ends on a tragic one.
The performances are strong; Mackey and Gercke shine as the twins, John has a lovely moment as Violet bringing home a newborn, Olivares is expressive as the daughter Beauty, and Johnson handles the dual roles of the befuddled Colonel and the Colonel’s grandson Johnny admirably.
The issue is that it is trying to be so many things, that it never entirely succeeds in any of them. Magical realism, intellectual debate, a family drama, and a dark comedy, it’s all in there. Maybe would be more successful if it had built up the characters more rather than so many ideas.
Even the plays name, taken from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (“The moment in the draughty church at smokefall/Be remembered; involved with past and future”) feels like it’s trying too hard. The poem discusses the concept that only the present moment matters, as the past is fixed and the future is unknowable. This leaves the play to try to build on philosophies like “our aim must be to find bliss inside the circle” and “the greatest possible act of courage is to love” but those prove to not be a steady enough foundation to support the weight of the play.
Backyard Renaissance takes risks, and clearly looks for plays to challenge their talented actors. While time, love, and family are all deep and worthy subjects of exploration and their talents, SMOKEFALL feels to too muddled to find most meaning.
SMOKEFALL, playing through September 16th is a production by Backyard Renaissance as a production in Residence at the La Jolla Playhouse. For ticket and show information go to www.backyardrenissance.com