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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
New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Performances continue to Sunday, March
16. $26 to $50.
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