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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 5, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Proof’

Sometimes we spend so much time fretting over family

troubles the size of molehills that we forget about some of the big

ones looming out there.

David Auburn’s play "Proof," just now receiving a brilliantly

persuasive New Jersey premiere at George Street Playhouse, gives us

a small family of just three members who are challenged by the mountain

of mental illness. Yet even more touching than the trials of mind

and medicine, are the trials of the heart that this family faces and


Although "Proof" is only Auburn’s second full-length play,

it has become one of the most successful new dramas in 20 years. Workshopped

at George Street Playhouse by David Saint in 1999, the play opened

at the Manhattan Theater Club in May, 2000. From there it moved to

Broadway, where it enjoyed a two-year run, closing this past January.

Directed here by Michael Morris, a former managing director of London’s

Old Vic, the production holds its audience in thrall of a powerful,

illusory world. Deft direction, ample performing talent, and exquisite

timing make this a play not to be missed.

Set in Chicago over a period of five years, this is a quintessentially

American back-porch drama with a tantalizing plot. The atmospheric

production needs only one well-wrought set to effectively take us

from the red leaves of September to the icy winds of December.

Ali Marsh plays the pivotal role of Catherine, an intellectually gifted,

frustrated and depressed young woman. Through Auburn’s fluid command

of date and place, the plot moves both forward and backward through

time. We see Catherine grow from a bright but tentative 21-year-old

to a trouble-bitten 25-year-old, so drained by caring for her sick

father that she doubts her own sanity. Marsh conveys a marvelous range

of emotion. In one of the play’s late scenes, we watch her journey

from anxiety to joy to despair all in a matter of minutes.

Playing Catherine’s soulful and loving father is Brian Smiar as Robert,

a brilliant mathematician who played and won "the young man’s

game." Once the University of Chicago star made breakthrough discoveries

in three areas of math, including the field of game theory, but in

his later years he has been overtaken by mental illness. As Cathy

languishes in her own depression, fearing for her own mental stability,

she can hardly find comfort in her father’s observation that "crazy

people don’t go around asking whether or not they’re crazy, they have

better things to do." True enough. His own legacy consists of

130 marble-covered notebooks each filled with obsessive gibberish.

These notebooks have brought 28-year-old Hal onto the scene, a young

math teacher and Robert’s former protege. Casting against type, Eric

Altheide plays this math geek as a fit, good-looking guy, with bleached-blonde

hair. Hal carries a pair of drumsticks in his backpack.

Sifting through the detritus of Robert’s study in search of mathematical

wisdom, Hal finds a single lucid notebook in which Robert wrote of

his debt to his remarkable young daughter.

Completing the family group is Kelly McAndrew as Catherine’s mostly

absent sister Claire, a successful currency analyst thriving in Manhattan.

Claire arrives with an almost manic take-charge manner, something

she uses to disguise her evasion of real family responsibility. Claire

is a confirmed Yuppie, who has supported the family financially and

for whom the presence of a top-flight neighborhood coffee roaster

represents the pinnacle of her personal aspirations.

Arriving on the scene of despair and decay, Claire trivializes her

sister’s efforts, challenging her decision to keep Robert in his own

home without professional help.

The play’s convincingly realist set is by R. Michael Miller, and transformative

lighting is by Christopher J. Bailey. Costumes are by David Murin.

The interesting original score by Haddon S. Kime offers atmospheric

music between scenes that ranges from gloomy brooding strings lightened

with a touch of flute to the sound of the Chicago mathematicians’

self-described awful rock band.

Although Princeton viewers will recognize parallels and specific allusions

to the mental illness of Nobel Prize-winner John Nash, this is above

all a drama of families. It is a play about how we love each other

with such fierceness that our passion can also ignite disaster.

Ultimately, "Proof’s" direction is so elegantly synchronized

that even when we are not quite sure where we stand in relation to

the players, nor where they stand in relation to each other, we recognize

how each one moves flawlessly within their own prescribed orbit.

— Nicole Plett

Proof, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Performances continue to Sunday, March

16. $26 to $50.

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