Necessary conversations are difficult to have. There’s rarely a good way to bring up the topic and when we finally approach discussion, can be difficult to put into words what we mean to say. This past Saturday, the Hope College Department of Theatre performed its closing night of Smokefall, a play by Noah Haidle. The play presents difficult family topics in a way that makes it almost impossible not to have a conversation afterwards to process it.
A colonel with dementia, a husband about to walk out, a daughter who dines on dirt, and a wife pregnant with twin boys who debate philosophy in utero. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? Yes and no. This family is stuck in a routine. The husband, Daniel (Maxwell Lam) says to his unborn sons “Hello, gentlemen,” the colonel (Andrew Dell’Olio) says to them “God exists,” “Never go to Detroit,” and “The greatest act of courage is to love.” The daughter, Beauty (Katy Smith) says nothing because she doesn’t speak. Mom, Violet (Ellyn Purnell) is holding it together with a smile and grace. Perhaps she knows her family is struggling to stay afloat. And perhaps she chooses to appear blissfully ignorant to that fact, choosing instead to err on the side of optimism. Footnote (Adam Chamness) is the narrator who provides commentary throughout the first act in the form of footnotes with revealing exposition that makes the audience nod in understanding as they learn how the characters came to be the people presented before them.
The second act depicts the two twins (Adam Chamness and Maxwell Lam) in utero minutes before they are to be born. The boys, attached by a long scarf to represent the umbilical cord, debate about the world they are to meet. They argue who gets what name, decided ultimately by a game of rock-paper-scissors, and they are now John (Adam Chamness) and Samuel (Maxwell Lam). John is the optimist of the two, ready to go out and explore the world whereas Samuel fears the ever imminent Original Sin. Their playful banter continues until birth.
The third act surprises the audience as the same actor who played the colonel returns to the stage, except this time as Johnny. He is old and worn having barely left his house. His grown son, Samuel (Adam Chamness) arrives home to celebrate his birthday, but Johnny is ungrateful and reverts back to his norm of debating Original Sin, the topic he first learned debated, originally as an optimist, with his brother in the womb. Johnny is remorseful for having been a terrible father to Samuel but believes that he was destined to fail as a father because his father before him, Daniel, left. He also asserts that if Samuel were to ever become a father, then he, too, would struggle and flee. Samuel hasn’t inherited the pessimism. He counters his father and states that he believes he determines his own future, he doesn’t allow himself to passively subscribe to the errors of his lineage.
After the play, director Daina Robins invited those who could, to stay for a panel led by three people of varying relations to theatre and storytelling in order to unpack the performance they had just witnessed. One of the primary themes in the play was the notion that some people are “born past saving,” that who we were born to be matters more than what we make of ourselves. Characters like Samuel in the third act show that this is not true, but that through the paths we choose to take, we become who we decide. Maxwell Lam, who appears in all three acts, commented on the different choices in each character that he plays has to make, “I think it provides a very well-rounded element of how the theme of choice is framed throughout the play.”
Everyone had varying perspectives on the role of choice in the family setting, how it determines life’s trajectory or primes us to act a certain way. Some expressed anger or frustration at a family member’s choices. Others expressed joy when they caught themselves acting in the same way as their parents or grandparents. An audience member offered this to summarize the theme of the evening: “we don’t choose our family, but man do we love them.”