Review: ‘Proof’ at 1st Stage

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At one point in David Auburn’s multiple award-winning drama Proof, which is currently being given an exceptionally gripping treatment at 1st Stage in Tysons, Hal Dobbs gushes to Catherine about her father’s legendary mathematical ability. He calls it “elegant” and “beautiful,” with “no wasted moves.” In fact, many of the characters in Proof wax poetic about theoretical mathematics in the same way others might discuss painting, ballet – or theatre. And this production of Proof is so enjoyable because it is as streamlined and whip-smart as one of Robert’s famous equations.

Sam Ludwig (Hal) and Katrina Clark (Catherine). Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Sam Ludwig (Hal) and Katrina Clark (Catherine). Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Directed by Alex Levy, this Proof is both a faithful re-telling and a memorably refreshing take on Auburn’s acclaimed 2000 drama. It strikes all of the right emotional notes and explores all the nooks and crannies in the narrative with the precision of a Fibonacci spiral. But then, Director Alex Levy gives Auburn’s straightforward naturalism a much needed expressionistic boost. Proof is, after all, a play about the genius and the madness of the human mind. A bold style is needed and wanted with this play, and 1st Stage delivers that without sacrificing any of the nuance and humor that has established Proof as the gold standard for contemporary Western drama.

Ray Ficca (Robert). Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Ray Ficca (Robert). Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Proof is swept along by its infectious dialogue and its unforgettable characters. There is Catherine (Katrina Clark), a troubled math wiz; Claire (Liz Osborne), her well-meaning but tight-fisted sister; their father, Robert (Ray Ficca), a mathematical genius with a tendency towards instability; and Hal (Sam Ludwig), a former grad student of Robert who takes an instant liking to Catherine. All of the four actors bring a critical authenticity and an endearing vulnerability to this production.

Catherine is the thorny and tormented beating heart of this play, and Katrina Clark rises to the challenge admirably. Although she accelerates slowly into the nuclear-powered character, once she is there, it’s totally gripping. Clark was able to trace the journey of the character without giving anything away or moving too soon. And her rail-thin body seems to curl in on itself when she feels she is being attacked, which is often.

In sharp contrast to Catherine, Liz Osborn as Claire is a ruthlessly reasonable and intolerably grounded individual. She is the type who tidies up without thinking and who prepares a Victorian tea set for the morning coffee. Osborn is the most consistent of the four performers, and she transforms what can easily be an unlikeable character into a deeply sympathetic one.

If Catherine is inspired yet troubled, and Claire is affable yet sensitive, then their father, Robert (Ray Ficca) is a perfect stitching of the two. Like Clark, Ficca takes some time to ease into his role as the mercurial patriarch. But, again like Clark, once he finds his groove, he is stunning. The apex of his performance (and possibly Clark’s as well) is a stunning scene in Act II where Catherine realizes the truth about her deteriorating father. The honesty and urgency that both actors bring to this scene epitomizes what is best about this play, and about this production.

Finally, Sam Ludwig is warm and funny as the earnest and much abused Hal. Balancing his scientific rationality with his growing feelings for Catherine, Sam Ludwig skillfully walks the line that makes Hal such a likeable and indispensable part of the story.

Proof seems so elegant in part because of the extreme simplicity of its set up: One single location, the front porch of the family’s Hyde Park home. But Director Alex Levy and Set and Costume Designer Kathryn Kawecki unexpectedly transforms what could be the height of minimalism into an expressionistic, all consuming installation that reaches the back of the unusually deep 1st Stage black box space. It is a twisted, organic looking tunnel that clearly alludes to the troubled and twisting minds at the center of the play.

Katrina Clark (Catherine) and Liz Osborn (Claire). Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Katrina Clark (Catherine) and Liz Osborn (Claire). Photo by Teresa Castracane.

In effect, the front porch becomes the tip of the iceberg, the only thing that is visible but which drags behind a titanic mass of family drama and mental instability. The house in Proof is always being referred to as a character in itself, and Kawecki’s staging reinforces that point.

The audience at the performance I attended was clearly connected to the actors. Every little shift was rewarded with a small laugh or a knowing “mmm” from at least one of the audience members, and when the curtain finally closed the crowd leapt to its feet. I was among them.

Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Proof plays through May 8, 2016 at 1st Stage – 1524 Spring Hill Road, in Tysons, VA. For tickets, call (703) 854-1856, or purchase them online.

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