Smoke raises questions while delivering challenging subject matter

Here’s my dilemma: it seems as if even a review of Smoke, currently playing at Downstage, should come with a trigger warning. This is a serious play about sexual assault, gender and memory. But that makes it sound a bit unapproachable, as well, which it certainly is not. It isn’t entirely comfortable to watch, and it’s a bit of a jungle gym for the brain. If that’s your jam, read on.

The premise is deceptively simple: Aiden is sitting in her apartment in Calgary, minding her own business, when Jordan comes to the door to confront her about her report to a mutual friend that Jordan sexually assaulted her when they were dating two years ago. There is plenty of fertile ground for a complex interplay of trauma, power and identity, even before you note that on alternate evenings, Jordan is played by either a man or a woman. 

At first glance, a cynical person might see a shameless ploy to sell twice as many tickets, but to be honest, it isn’t necessary to see it twice. I did, and there is certainly a different dynamic with a different cast, but the reality is that even if you only see it once, you can’t help but speculate about how your experience would be different if Jordan were a different gender. The internal dialogue happens simply by virtue of suggesting the device — next, I think I’m going to try it while I re-watch Glengarry Glen Ross. 

The text is uncomfortably realistic, with sentence fragments and overlapping dialogue, recalling conversations that I feel as if I’ve actually had with my English major friends when we were in our early 20s. On one level, the production can be experienced purely on this level: there is an immediacy and a timeliness of this conversation about two very different recollections of the same event, situated in the #MeToo era. 

If you choose to settle in and reflect on it, the play is replete with metaphor — sometimes overwhelmingly so. Aiden and Jordan are both writers, and they each periodically remove themselves from the action of the play to address the audience directly. Aiden tells a story that she is writing about a town ravaged by repeated re-experiencing of a fire. The town suffers a single traumatic event reminiscent of the Fort McMurray wildfire, but each time the mythic town in her story rebuilds, it burns down again. The parallels with her own re-experiencing of her trauma are obvious, and Anton deGroot’s set design offers a smoke-damaged apartment that makes the metaphor inescapable. 

Jordan has recently published a book of poetry, and reads excerpts that frame some of the other metaphors. There is a recurrent reference to botanical anatomy: calyx, corolla, gynoecium, and androecium. What playwright Elena Eli Belyea doesn’t explicitly say is that flowers that have both gynoecium and androecium are considered “perfect,” while those that include only the male or female reproductive components are called “incomplete.” (In addition to a lot of English majors, I also know a poet who writes about botanical anatomy.) Jordan’s poems are about memory, from nostalgia to rumination. According to one line, “memory dangles alternate realities like a lure, but is ultimately irrelevant.” 

A play about a woman confronting her rapist is, as you can imagine, fraught. Aiden yells and Jordan quakes for several minutes in the beginning (as indeed I imagine you would in the situation), but it leaves the audience worrying that this dynamic might go on for the entire 105 minutes. It doesn’t, thankfully, and there are wide dynamic shifts in the ways that Aiden and Jordan navigate the situation. On both nights, Aiden is played by Chantelle Han, who expertly infuses the character with equal measures of fear, anger and determination. Jordan is alternately played by Joel David Taylor and Alexandra Dawkins, and it’s a role that requires more ambiguity, since we aren’t meant to be entirely convinced of the nature of the event that Aiden describes. Taylor in particular handles the hyper-realistic, overlapping text with skill, and gives a complex, nuanced portrayal. I would imagine that as many in the audience left with a clear perception that he did perpetrate the crime as those who were certain he did not. Dawkins’ portrayal of Jordan is a bit more uniformly passive, and gender assumptions aside, she doesn’t seem like a woman who would take more than her share of rolls at a dinner party, let alone commit sexual assault. But her puzzlement at the accusation is engaging, and the evolution of the relationship between the characters is rewarding to watch. 

The action takes place on a platform, creating a tiny apartment out of the larger Big Secret Theatre black box area, physically setting apart Jordan’s and Aiden’s literary asides as they descend to the audience’s level for their monologues. In director Christine Brubaker’s staging, the two characters endlessly revolve around each other in the small space like neurotic polar bears pacing their enclosure, and it is effective to build the tension that is released in cathartic fashion at the end. Belyea’s text is challenging, but worth the effort, and the result is a show that raises more questions than it answers. 

(Photo of Smoke by Downstage Theatre courtesy Katy Whitt.)

Smoke runs in the Big Secret Theatre at Arts Commons until February 23. 

Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.