Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Remembering the Glory of Living

Remembering the Glory of Living

Kelly Strand, Andrew Gorell

Andrew Gorell, Bob McCoy

Aaron Brown (l), Andrew Gorell

(l.. to r.) Kelly Strand, Andrew Gorell, Heidi Swinford, Bob McCoy, Aaron Brown

BY Tom Wachunas

Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.
 - T.S Eliot, from “BURNT NORTON” (No. 1 of ‘Four Quartets’)

Isn’t it rich? / Are we a pair? / Me here at last on the ground /You in mid-air/Send in the clowns  -  Stephen Sondheim

   There is certainly a conceptual kinship between Noah Haidle’s Smokefall and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Both plays are piquant narratives that explore, in varying degrees, the bittersweet dynamics of the ties that bind us to each other, and to simply being alive. But Haidle’s narrative -  chronicling four generations of a quirky family in Grand Rapids, Michigan – is a much more layered and complex journey through time. The play is mounted here by Seat of the Pants Productions and directed by Craig Joseph, who’s always on the look-out for powerful, challenging stage literature. He’s found it again. And again, he has assembled a superbly accomplished ensemble to articulate it. The play is an unflinching conflation of the mundane and the metaphysical, and profoundly rich in the way it melds together preposterous whimsicality, dark hilarity, and soulful tenderness.

   Throughout Act 1, the character named Footnote (Andrew Gorell) walks about the stage like a veteran tour guide. He addresses the audience in a finessed attitude of serious authority peppered with curiosity and surprise as he voices enumerated annotations on the actions and thoughts of all the other characters.

    We meet the sweet and sensitive Violet (Heidi Swinford), pregnant with twin boys (“mistakes,” Footnote observes). As she contentedly goes about her daily tasks, she sings gentle songs to them, inviting her family to speak to her unborn “citizens of the heart.”   But the pregnancy has only added to the fragile psychological state of her husband, Daniel (Aaron Brown). He’s depressed, disillusioned, apparently feeling burdened by the ho-hum of everyday routines. At one point we see Violet setting the breakfast table, putting down the cups one by one in a loud rhythm, as if marching, while upstairs at the bathroom sink the dour-looking Daniel - who has no intention of ever returning home once he leaves for work on this day- slaps his razor on the sharpening strap in an equally march-like rhythm. Is this the relentless striding of cruel time? There are other similarly nuanced details in the play, wherein an otherwise ordinary sight or action acquires a deeper symbolism. Footnote tells us what Daniel whispers to the twins: “Help me remember the glory of living.”  We find out later that the twins hear every word spoken in this troubled household.

   Meanwhile, Bob McCoy delivers a genuinely affectionate portrait of The Colonel, a widowed career army man still very much in love with his departed wife even as he wanders in the mists of dementia. He tells the twins, “God exists. Remember I said that…and that the greatest possible act of courage is to love.” And then there’s Beauty, 16-year-old daughter of Violet and Daniel, played by Kelly Strand. She’s heard the marital arguments, along with her father’s constant lamenting the incessant cost and noise of life in their house. In a very odd act of love and self-sacrifice, she hasn’t uttered a word for the last three years, and subsists on a diet of dirt, twigs, and paint. It’s a thoroughly endearing eccentricity that Strand conveys. In her speechlessness, she lets her precise body language do the talking, her face a veritable enchanted landscape of emotional expressivity.

   The play’s most fantastical scene transpires at the end of Act 1, with Aaron Brown as Fetus One, and our narrator, Andrew Gorell, as Fetus Two. Dressed in garish red plaid suits like a Vaudeville comic duo, they kick, curl, push, and shove their way (oh, the labor pains!) through ridiculous (or is it miraculous?) in-utero philosophizing about their impending entry to humanity. In this manic mash-up of Shakespeare, Sondheim, Sartre, and Samuel Beckett, one twin (Brown) is fatalistic and fearful, while the other is all giddy optimism and courage as the two finally agree to take the plunge, as it were. The scene ends on an unexpectedly shocking note.

   When Act 2 begins, a whole generation has passed. In another of those aforementioned symbolic moments, we notice that through one of the floated window panes in the elegantly simple set designed by Kevin Anderson and Micah Harvey, the branches of an apple tree have grown into the family house. It’s a new tree, planted to replace the diseased one that once stood in the same spot in Act 1. The past grown into the present.  Bob McCoy has returned in the role of Johnny, that optimistic twin, now living alone in the family house and seemingly haunted - or obsessed – by ideas about genetic determinism he acquired in the womb. His kitchen floor is strewn with fallen, partially eaten apples; he prunes the invasive branches. He has an estranged son, Samuel (Gorell / Fetus Two), who has visited to reconcile with his father, saying at one point, “You’re alone because you drove everyone who cared for you away!” Johnny retorts “You can’t outrun a lineage.”

   Beauty also returns, effusively talking about her 40 years of searching for her father. She’s 95 by now, but still looks 16. Another symbol, or another miracle – to remain young by refusing to abandon familial love?

   Smokefall is an aptly intriguing title for this extraordinary drama. T.S. Eliot used the term in writing about the movement of time in his great poetic swansong, “Four Quartets.” It’s that fog that can rise in the fading light at close of day, before the dark sets in. Alluring, mysterious, and obscuring all at once, it can be nevertheless a cathartic, even sacred time, when past, present, and future join to become a singular, revelatory force.

    Just like being alive, experiencing Smokefall, the story, requires of us a vigilant attention to the idea of pursuing the redemptive power of love and its potential to reconcile broken, disconnected hearts. The effort can be exhausting, but also exhilarating. “The attempt is how we live,” as the title of the second act reminds us. Putting aside all its strange magic and brooding humor for a moment, here’s theatre that is ultimately, lovingly...real.

PHOTOS by Aimee Lambes

SMOKEFALL / shows on August 9, 10, 11, 2019 /
Friday and Saturday at 8 PM / Sunday at 2 PM /
At The Playground at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Boulevard, Cleveland Heights 44118 / Tickets $20 at: