Monday, January 26, 2015

Theater Review: Proof -- Playhouse on Park

Marty Scanlon and Dana Brooke. Photo: Rich Wagner 
Proof that Mathematics and Genius Can Make for Gripping Drama
By Lauren Yarger
It’s about math and prime numbers and proofs of mathematical theories, but don’t let bad memories of sophomore geometry keep you from seeing David Auburn’s Proof at Playhouse on Park. Because it’s not boring and it’s really about so much more.

On top of that, Dawn Loveland directs a tight production of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play and gets top-notch performances from the ensemble offering her own proof that small theater companies can produce fine work.

Dana Brooke starts as Catherine, a troubled young woman trying to figure out what to do after caring for her math professor/genius father, Robert (Damian Buzzerio) whose brilliance was lost for the past seven years as his mind slipped away. Catherine gave up school and her own hopes at a career in mathematics to stay at their Chicago home and care for her father. The action takes place on the home’s back porch, designed by Christopher Hoyt.

Robert spends his time forgetting to eat, looking for codes in library books and scribbling nonsense in 103 notebooks trying to recapture his ability to prove mathematic theories. Except for a lucid period of nine months (now four years ago), Catherine wasn’t able to connect.

After his death, his former teaching assistant, Hal (Marty Scanlon) shows up at the house asking to go through Robert’s work. Even though the notebooks seem to contain nothing but gibberish, Hal feels an obligation to see whether anything actually makes sense. Catherine doesn’t miss the fact that if Hal does find something, it just might be his ticket to his own fame in the mathematics community.

Eventually Hal wins Catherine’s trust, and she shows him a notebook hidden away, one that holds a proof of a prime-number theory that has long eluded scholars. There’s one problem, however. Catherine, not Robert, might be the author.

Can Hal believe that the untrained Catherine could write such a complex proof? Can her estranged sister, Claire (Melissa Macleod Herion)? While Claire readily admits that Catherine inherited their father’s gift for math, she also is concerned that she might also share some traits of the mental illness that caused delusions – perhaps like the ones her sister now is experiencing. Claire wants to sell the house and force her sister to move with her to New York where she can keep an eye on her – and obtain the services of some of the best mental health specialists if needed….

This play, which won the Tony, the Pulitzer and just about every other major theater award in 2001, looks at the themes of genius vs madness, family vs loneliness and the complexity of relationships – between people as well as numbers. It’s intelligent and absorbing – much more so than Auburn’s latest play, Lost Lake, which didn’t excite me in its recent Off-Broadway run.

Brooke, in her Playhouse on Park debut, gives a solid, layered performance of the young woman struggling to be comfortable in her own skin. She is so immersed in the role, that in a scene where we observe a flashback of Catherine with Robert, she looks visibly brighter, her voice sounding lighter and happier. The transformation is subtle (aided with less toned-down textures in her clothes designed by Erin Payne), yet noticeable as it silently speaks volumes.

There is good rapport among the actors and each is able to portray his or her character fully without stepping on the others, despite the different personalities represented: Claire the uptight, controlling, not-so-smart sister, Robert the frustrated genius, lost in his own world save for his favorite daughter and Hal, the ambitious, yet caring friend. A fine piece of theater.

A talk back with the cast will take place immediately following all Sunday performances. This production is recommended for ages 13 and up as it contains strong language and mild adult content.

Proof runs at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford, through Feb. 8. Performances are Wednesday-Sunday from January 21-February 8. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 2 pm. Tickets $25-$35 for adults, students, seniors; 860-523-5900 x10.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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