Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Proof"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by David Auburn
directed by Celia Couture

Catherine … Susan Condit
Robert … David Warnock
Hal … Judson L. Pierce
Claire … Melissa Sine

Question: does it pay to read a script before seeing it performed? There are two sides to the coin --- Side One, you will be alerted as to what you will (hopefully) be seeing; Side Two, you might attend with preconceived notions, wondering if the production will do it justice. When I first read David Auburn’s PROOF, I dismissed it as yet another mood play with few characters, one setting and numerous prizes (including the Pulitzer) --- the type of Chekhovian drama that flourished after WWII and has steadily thinned the theatre’s blood, ever since. That was PROOF on paper; after seeing it solidly performed at the Vokes Theatre, I conclude that PROOF remains a mood play but a good one and will do for geeks what Donald Margulies’ COLLECTED STORIES does for writers --- Catherine, twenty-five years old, gave up college to care for Robert, her mentally ill father who was once a brilliant, much-admired mathematician; she has sunk into inertia following his death. Her sister Claire interprets Catherine’s own erratic behavior as her inheriting Robert’s madness as well as his genius; she plans to sell the family home and take Catherine back to live with her in New York (there are intimations of medical assistance, there). Catherine begins a guarded affair with Hal, one of Robert’s former students, who has been rooting through her father’s incoherent notebooks in search of anything worth publishing. Out of trust, she gives Hal a key to Robert’s desk which produces a mathematical proof of unquestioned brilliance; he and Claire are stunned when Catherine announces that she, not Robert, wrote it. But what proof does Catherine have? (Thus, the two-fold title.) As expected, little happens, action-wise, which may explain Mr. Auburn shuffling his chronology for theatricality’s sake, and if his audience is served finger foods instead of a three-course dinner, at least they are made of steak and potatoes. But a Pulitzer….?

The Vokes, which will be celebrating its centenary this year, has turned out some of the finest community theatre in the Boston area, nor do they disappoint with their latest offering. Director Celia Couture firmly, invisibly, guides her actors down the path between the cerebral and the soapy, thus Mr. Auburn’s characters are cool in thought but warm when reaching out to each other. Since PROOF is heavy on the talk talk talk, Ms. Couture is to be commended for not forcing her actors to cartwheel about the stage but, instead, allows them to remain seated for long stretches of time --- it may not sound like much but it is, it is, and the results pleasingly show (Realism rocks, for once!). Three performances are very fine, as is: the fourth, David Warnock’s Robert, disappointed me, at first --- after reading the script, I pictured Robert being more grounded in his profession, darker in his illness; Mr. Warnock plays him as a cheery, witty sitcom dad --- after awhile, his lightweight interpretation began to make sense: there’s no graven rule that says a Genius must also be a Great Man in his private life (everyone knows by now what a negligent husband and father Einstein really was); Mr. Warnock’s mathematician is a man who is assured with numbers but abashed with people, including his own flesh and blood, having settled for being entertaining instead of affectionate --- he may possess a radiant mind but the heart that beats within him is still green. His mental breakdown draws its poignancy from Mr. Warnock continuing in his chosen key --- a sudden deepening would prove false --- instead, his gears speed up, turning him into a shivering heap of tics; when he finally cries out for help, the so-called “machinery” has ground to a permanent halt. This may not be the Robert in my mind-theatre but, again, it works and works well when played against Susan Condit’s Catherine. Be it a stroke of casting and/or Ms. Couture’s direction, Ms. Condit runs parallel to Mr. Warnock’s interpretation, matching him in hyper-energy which not only makes for a believable parent-child relationship but lends credence to Claire’s fears that, well, like father, like daughter. Unlike Mr. Warnock, Ms. Condit does deepen her characterization as the evening progresses (Catherine questions her own sanity; Robert has never looked into his); she has many indelible moments --- it is a pleasure to watch the flickerings on her face --- to me, her most moving moment is also her briefest (and may it stay brief in its effectiveness): when she is reunited with her proof, she shrinks back --- she has already divorced herself from it --- her resolve crumbling, she tentatively reaches for it as if in forgiveness and hugs it to her; it is her child, her identity, and now it is hers, once again. (My one nit-pick: this Catherine is far too well-scrubbed; she has got to be the sprucest-looking depressive, anywhere.)

Judson L. Pierce makes a convincing geek, down to his T-shirts --- his Hal will remain at heart an earthbound adolescent who can only dream what Robert achieved; a follower, not a pioneer. Mr. Auburn has given Hal some very funny lines and Mr. Pierce delivers them with crack timing that never calls attention to itself (and may it stay that way). As the well-meaning Claire, Melissa Sine continues to evolve into a striking character actress; I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: she has the fire-beneath-the-ice quality that Harold Pinter calls for and any company casting THE HOMECOMING would do well to snap her up as Ruth (“If you take the glass … I’ll take you.”). Paradoxically, the more buttoned-up Ms. Sine appears, the more sensual she becomes; I’ll wager a bet she could be wheeled out onstage in an iron lung and still smolder.

Ruth Neeman has designed a simple back-porch set with one wee addition that makes it all spring to life: the screen door’s creaking hinges --- those understated creeeeeeeeeaks speak volumes about the reported dilapidated interiors. If the set crew is thinking of oiling those hinges --- don’t.

"Proof" (6 - 22 May)
Route 20, WAYLAND, MA
1 (508) 358-4034

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide