Review: ‘Proof’ at Olney Theatre Center

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Who wants to go see a play about math? That could be a typical dialogue when people are perusing the paper wondering how to spend their Saturday night. In the case of David Auburn’s Tony Award-winning play, Proof, this hypothesis would be wrong because, as the characters in this beautiful play say often, we can’t know the answer to the question until we have all of the information. Rest assured, what follows is all of the information you’ll need to make your Saturday night plans.

Biko Eisen-Martin (Hal), Aakhu TuahNera Freeman (Claire), and Dawn Ursula (Catherine). Photo by Stan Barouh.

The play centers around Catherine, daughter of a math genius and a closet wiz herself, who struggles to prove many things to both herself and the other people in her life: is she crazy? Will she go “cuckoo” like her father? Did she write the proof or did she imagine doing so, as her father did five years prior? Is she capable of functioning without taking care of her father, who gave her both great encouragement and doomsday warnings on a regular basis? Are people being truthful with her, or using her to get their hands on the prized proof? Can she make it on her own or does she need to move in with her big sister and her irritatingly connected fiance in New York?

These questions float around Catherine in a ring of overstimulation, which Director Timothy Douglas incorporates into his production without beating us over the head with metaphors. In almost every scene in which Catherine fears that others don’t believe her, she circles around the perimeter of the thrust with cat-like suspicion, like a caged animal avoiding capture. The screened-in porch is her own Switzerland, where she hovers when avoiding angst, and where she finally lives in the moment and allows a young man to make her feel beautiful. Douglas employs the porch for Catherine’s costume changes, dimming the lights while other characters hand her her costume pieces and take the old ones away. They do this in character, be it angrily or sensually, never allowing the audience to lose focus on its emotional journey. This brilliant decision is a master class in thinking outside the box, er, porch.

Douglas discovered a delicious pot of gold in Dawn Ursula, who draws us in with the flit of an eyelid. Her Catherine is feisty, vulnerable, sassy, ironic, demonstrative with her beautiful hands, engagingly staccato in her delivery, and with a smile that, when it comes, knocks you over with its genuineness and heart. Ursula lives on another plane, showing us her exhaustion, confusion, self-doubt and fear of truth. The latter runs throughout Catherine, and Ursula’s portrayal conveys that so clearly. When she says “I AM FINE,” she is trying to convince the naysayer and herself at the same time, smiling through gritted teeth and struggling to keep her eyes from rolling back into her head with annoyance. She remains outwardly pleasant while inside, she is screaming “I AM NOT FINE!” She plays against the anger, which is a much more realistic reaction from someone who is trying to hide her heart from those who love her. Ursula doesn’t see words on a page; she sees blue light and shining stars, false hope and bright lies, fierce defenses and heartbreaking loss. It would not be enough to congratulate Ursula on her performance; rather, a cup of coffee and two hours of chatter would be infinitely more satisfying.

As her father, Washington regular Craig Wallace is delightful. His booming voice reaches the depths of your shoes as he bellows with authority and love. There is no doubt that his Professor Wallace is brilliant, with his perfect enunciation and earnest passion for learning. His chemistry with Ursula crackles with intensity and co-dependence, as we mourn the loss of his mind as much as does Catherine. Wallace’s most riveting moment comes with the realization that he is, in fact, not ok; this truth washes over him slowly like a drippy faucet slowly unclogging.

Craig Wallace (Robert and Dawn Ursula (Catherine). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Biko Eisen-Martin’s Harold Dobbs, Hal to his friends, walks the fine line between sympathy for Catherine and a passion for math. His reverence for the late Professor Wallace opens a door to his feelings for Catherine, while also driving him to read through every notebook in Wallace’s home office looking for something, anything, that is more than the ramblings of a very sick man. Eisen-Martin’s boyish charm is a necessary contrast to Ursula’s stoic resolve to never have any fun, making it very easy to see why Catherine comes alive in his presence. Hal isn’t afraid of her, which helps her let go of her own fright and live.

As Catherine’s older, urban sister Claire, who flew the coop and left Catherine alone to take care of their father, Aakhu TuahNera Freeman brings with her a serious, persistent nudnik who is positive that Catherine is turning into their father and thus uses this to justify her controlling actions and inability to accept the word “no” from anyone who doesn’t let her lead. Freeman very rarely allows the audience to see Claire without the layers of cloying dominance and insistence that she is the only one who can “help” Catherine, and this is in line with how Claire lives her life. Freeman sometimes seems to leave her heart on the doorstep and forgets to put it back in, which can lead her confrontations with Catherine to feel unfinished, as happens when one winds up a jack-in-the-box but stops just before the scary doll pops up in the winder’s face. Freeman clearly has the chops and essence to get there.

Luciana Stecconi’s set design evokes the emotions that Douglas wants from the audience. The stage consists of two wooden, gradated platforms with a glowing blue light frequently emanating from between them. The screened-in porch spans the length of the upstage space, with a door leading to the house tucked into one corner. The back wall is covered in mathematical equations on a faintly visible graph paper design. The simplicity of the set, providing everything we need and nothing we don’t, is the perfect foundation for the emotional action on stage.

Kudos to both Lighting Designer Mike Durst and Sound Designer Matthew M. Nielson for taking us out of a black box theatre and into a real world of a back porch on a fall day. Durst switches between soft yellow for morning and blue for night, creating an outdoor effect and familiar feel of the back porch. The light against the screened-in porch adds texture by creating shadows, allowing visible tree leaves to dangle over the action. This contributes greatly to the soft feeling of home, despite the tense relationships and ideas taking place in a run down backyard. One interesting feature is the blue light that frequently emanates from between the two platforms. Images of Catherine drowning in her own self-doubt and suspicion come to mind, with that blue light waiting to swallow her up. Nielson’s use of music during transitions creates a smooth, connected story progression, and the soft, barely noticeable ambient noise track with birds and car noises (as one would find outside in the south side of Chicago) are leveled perfectly so as to add to the ambiance without the audience actively hearing them. Kendra Rai’s costumes are baggy and neutral, which perfectly suits (pun absolutely intended) Catherine’s world.

Olney Theatre Center’s production of Proof is as beautiful as the most simple math theorems, and as complex as the problems they solve. One does not require any more proof that this production is genius.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission.

Proof plays through June 18, 2017, at Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab – 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (302) 924-3400, or purchase them purchase them online.

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