In searching for answers one must always be able to prove that the answers they have found are true. A deeply profound tale of how life must always keep going until it stops completely is what comes to the stage as Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions presents Proof by David Auburn as the second show of their inaugural season.
Directed by Angela Pirko, this Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is a compelling piece of theatre that engages the audience’s mind and opens the emotions of the play’s reality for interpretation. Catherine struggles to deal with her father’s declining mental illness, her father – the once genius mathematician who revolutionized his field of study – now but a shadow of his former glory, trapping her in the house with him as she watches him deteriorate. With an estranged out of town sister and an over-eager graduate student in the picture it’s just about all she can handle. Will her father’s legacy unravel her from the inside out just as his illness did him; this emotionally charged drama has all the answers and proof you need to find out.
Set Designer Ashley San creates a literal representation of the show’s main theme in her design work. The ‘proofs’ themselves are present everywhere— scrawled out on the patio chairs and table as well as the draping that covers the entrance to the house and the floorboards of the porch. This not only highlights the key importance of the mathematics in the character’s lives but shows how deeply consumed they are, so much so that it has spilled over into every aspect of their existence. San’s creative interpretation of the derelict house, done with a squeaking creaking porch and a house frame covered in tattered sheets printed with proofs forms a parallel to the way the madness of the math eats away at the character’s lives.
This notion of literalizing the mathematical aspect of the play is taken a step further with Lighting Designer Peter Caress. Using light projections to further cast the proofs in print upon the floor of the stage during the scene changes augments the voiceovers, further ingraining the notion of how this madness is spreading from the inside outward for the duration of the production.
Director Angela Pirko unifies a talented cast of four actors with all the right balances in staging and blocking. Pacing is often a critical part of drama and Pirko lets the play flow naturally passing from one scene to the next with a uniquely presented intro to each scene. A proof is read by one character, blending at times simultaneously into another character, allowing the audience to hear the transitions as the emotional subtext seeps through their voices, out over the words and into the air.
Ever the practical realist and only able to see problems in black and white, Claire (Aly B. Ettman) arrives as a stranger to the situation. Ettman’s calm and calculating logic makes her character sensible if detached making it easy for the audience to dislike her because of her disconnect with the gravity of the situation. She creates a nagging presence that constantly needles at Catherine and has a quick snappy retort for every spat that occurs between them. Her soothing attempts to assuage the situation evoke further ire in her sister and she makes a great sounding board when Catherine begins to rant. She possesses all of the emotional qualities of a bleeding heart who paves the road to hell with her good intentions and keeps emotionally grounded in her perfect life outside of the family she’s left behind.
As an enigma caught between true genius and utter insanity Robert (Bob Chaves) is a fascinating character that snatches the audience’s attention with ease. Chaves approach to the character is slightly aloof at first, signaling to the audience ever so subtly that there is something slightly amiss, not true madness but just a keen sense of being slightly off-kilter. As the play progresses Chaves delves further into the character’s psyche, allowing the audience to see the drastic shift in his persona. A flashback scene late in the second act becomes a truly heartbreaking and traumatic moment as Chaves delivers a stunning series of lines that lets you see him desperately clinging to the last shreds of his sanity before he finally slips away over the very last edge of reality and away into an infinite abyss of lunacy; a stellar performance given in a role with so little stage time.
Creating a controversial place in the story is Hal (Matthew Baughman) one of Robert’s former grad students. Baughman’s characterization is as different as night and day depending upon the scene he’s in, but the entirety of his portrayal is sharply focused on being present in the moment. From awkward and nerdy in flashback scenes with Chaves to coy and flirtatious, albeit with a geeky flare, with Catherine (Ashley San), Baughman maintains the rapid-pace energy of a continually evolving character with perpetual ease. The chemistry he shares with San is pure electricity. When they shift into those sweet shy moments of romantic embrace it bubbles with a loving effervescence.
San gives a superbly dynamic performance in the lead role of the production. Making sharp precise shifts during her mood swings she is the epitome of a well rounded actor with clean margins on either side of her feelings. Playing a mostly hardened bitter sardonic and sarcastic individual, San masters her repartee with Claire and excels when fighting; her vocal tones accented with a sizzling acid and vicious lashing of her tongue. But San softens considerably in more tender moments with her father, and even in the slightly romantic moments opposite Baughman, making for a truly versatile performer.
The proof is in the acting, and this is a spectacular cast! Don’t miss Proof!
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
Proof plays through March 30, 2013 at Theatre on the Run— 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington, VA. Tickets are available for purchase online.