From left: Footnote (Matthew Kern), Violet (Brooke Calcagno), and Beauty (Jessica Hillenbrand) in Defunkt's Smokefall.

The title of Smokefall, Noah Haidle’s sprawling, surreal family drama, comes from a 40-page T.S. Eliot poem. I’m not going to quote it here, I just want you to know what kind of show this is: one where fetuses sing Sondheim and paint-drinking daughters circle the globe on foot à la One Hundred Years of Solitude

When Haidle’s play opened in Chicago six years ago, the reception was laudatory—Variety memorably wrote, “If Thornton Wilder had dropped acid, he might’ve written Smokefall. When the same production moved to New York, it was panned. Now it comes to Portland as Defunkt Theatre’s season opener, and it’s easy to see both sides of the coin.

Cleanly divided into three acts, Smokefall traces one family’s inherited trauma across four generations. We start in the mid-20th century, on the day Daniel (Joe Von Appen) decides to leave his pregnant wife Violet (Brooke Calcagno) and their mute daughter Beauty (Jessica Hillenbrand). A character named Footnote (Matthew Kern) provides crucial context. We then travel into Violet’s womb and back out, where one of her offspring (Chris Porter) has aged well into his 70s and struggles with the aftershocks of Daniel’s abandonment. 

If that sounds like your idea of a good time, you're likely to have one. It's a beguiling piece, so minute-to-minute inventive that you can't help but check on your fellow audience members to make sure they're seeing what you're seeing.

It's also sort of exhausting. The text, which has undergone slight changes since Chicago, has become a bit blunter, a bit less like dialogue—themes are stated, underlined, and repeated, and characters struggle for flesh beneath Haidle's big ideas. Kern in particular never figures out how to turn Footnote's elliptical sentences into natural speech, and Sophie Kristensen’s set doesn’t provide much gravity: it highlights a central tree metaphor so shamelessly that it’s hard not to guffaw. 

The fetuses (Joe Von Appen and Matthew Kern) prepare to exit the womb.

And yet, you rarely do. Calcagno is quietly stunning, her Violet full of earthy strength and near-paralyzing grace. Hillenbrand brings a spiky world-weariness to Beauty, pulling off a wordy third-act monologue with particular skill. And the womb sequence, nestled between more straightforward sections, is a fizzy delight. You wish for stronger choices from Kern, who plays the more cocksure fetus (all of the men play double roles), but director Patrick Walsh injects that scene’s fast, funny dialogue with a satisfying sense of dread. When the unborn twins discuss the burden of choosing to live in a fractured world (“I’m just a little worried about original sin,” one muses), you feel the scope of the conundrum between chuckles.

In general, Walsh gets a handle on Haidle's challenging script, highlighting phrases and gestures planted throughout the text like thematic breadcrumbs (pay attention to the weight behind a forehead kiss and who says “See you in a minute” to whom). Big chewy themes get considerable, careful stage time, and some insights rattle ("The greatest possible act of courage is to love, and anyone who says different is an asshole," for instance). He's supported by Chris Beatty's sound design, full of twinkling piano trills that say "fable" without inducing hyperglycemia. The final moments, though, behave like the end to a triumphant tearjerker, and I walked away feeling a little bit cold.

That's the central problem with Smokefall: it's a brain workout masquerading as an openhearted crowdpleaser—it grows in the memory but rarely hits in the gut (Calcagno's performance being a notable exception). For fans of structural risk or anyone preoccupied with their inherited family baggage, though, it's a must-see. It may not totally hold you for the full two hours, but to paraphrase a piece of advice handed down through the show's generations: go anyway.

Smokefall

7:30 p.m. Thurs–Sat, 2 p.m. Sun until Nov 16, Defunk Theatre, Pay what you will

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