The relationship between expectations and outcome is an interesting traversal that I suspect all reviewers consider now and again. For example, I expected Pulitzer-winner Proof to be a very good show. At the very least, it had L. Peter Callender and Callender could probably grip my attention pacing around reciting ASCII code. Moreover, the script by David Auburn is a gem in many ways, especially if you’re even vaguely into math. However, those were the expectations going in. The surprise was that this play so exceeded them.
For starters, this TheatreWorks’ production offers up a delightful warmth that I didn’t anticipate, in part because of the enormous distances between the characters. There’s distances between academic mathematician Robert and his daughter Catherine who cared for him as his mind unraveled, and distances between Catherine and her sister Claire, who’s determined to bring Catherine back to something more seemingly normal after their father’s death. There’s distances between an academic and his material, between the living and the death, sane and insane, and between Catherine and her father’s grad student. These distances aren’t so much barriers as porous spaces the characters breath into. Director Leslie Martinson paced this beautifully, with a plot that moves at slowly and reflectively, allowing you to soak in these people, and the distances travelled by them.
Michelle Beck gives the audience a Catherine who resonates with the prickly impatience of someone who’s had to deal with chronic illness for too long, coupled with the vulnerability that goes having done so. While occasionally Beck offers up an inflection of heartbreaking sweetness, part of her character will always remain a silvery x, an unknown, like the aforementioned manuscript.
Peter Callender travels the biggest distance as Robert, moving between living and dead, from compulsively filling notebooks with meaningless drivel to one who arrives from the hereafter, moving with a generous slowness and clarity that reads as wisdom, in a way that only Callender can. Even his repeated stage exits, disappearing with a diffuse jazz in the background to mark the end of acts, never looks stagy, but more like incredibly artful punctuation.
Ashley Bryant infuses Catherine’s sister Claire with such a wonderful reasonableness that she’s hard to dislike. Well-intentioned advice given by those who got away without gaining the knowledge that comes with paying at least some dues never squares to the situation, but it’s easy to suspend judgment here, particularly because Claire raises the possibility that life in this house might not be normal – at least according to some vaguely recognizable criteria for normal. We appreciate her because that filter is useful to have in this play – even if you don’t completely buy it. Instead of antagonizing the audience in a two-dimensional kind of way, Bryant pulls off a different trick altogether.
Insofar as theatre is ever about reconstructing reality, TheatreWorks has always known it’s about reconstructing all of reality.
Lance Gardner played the Peter’s grad student Hal, shortsighted and self-interested in a grad student kind of way. He’s the foreigner, the destabilizer – the new energy that makes the plot seem suddenly unpredictable.
Annie Smart’s set was drop dead gorgeous, showing the incredibly detailed exterior of a house that your friend’s parents might have owned in the 1970’s, complete with the accumulated dust on the Weber clone grill, boom-box on the porch, and a faded peek into what once passed for someone’s vision of Danish modern.
Notes from Artistic Director Robert Kelly speak to inequalities for women and minorities in science and math, and as often discussed, in theatre. Insofar as theatre is ever about reconstructing reality, TheatreWorks has always known it’s about reconstructing all of reality. This show delivers on that. However, the beauty of so much of show doesn’t even vaguely fall under the penumbra of that discussion. This show twinkles at the edges of where equations begin to tease and where your mind starts to wrap around them. That, more than anything, makes Proof worth taking in. No algebra necessary.
Photo: Kevin Berne