In my experience as a critic I can say that there is good theatre, there is bad theatre, and occasionally, when we are very lucky, there is great theatre. Such is the case now with the current production from the increasingly popular Texas Repertory Theatre. If you need proof, you will find it their Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play by David Auburn. You see the play is aptly named, “Proof.” But an award-winning script alone is not sufficient to make a great production. For that you need the kind of outstanding cast assembled here by talented director, Craig A. Miller. The performances were uniformly brilliant, and the impact of this mysterious drama is profound. Don’t miss it if you favor theatre that enlightens the mind.
Before an actor takes to the stage, one is struck by the extraordinarily well-crafted scenic and lighting designs of Robert Eubanks. They realistically depict the back porch and yard of a somewhat tired looking, two-story home near the campus of the University of Chicago. There are pleasant French doors, hanging plants, wicker chairs, and dreamy lighting filters through the autumn trees that have already lost many of their leaves to the porch and yard. Nearly hidden in the beams of light are subtly projected formulas that cleverly hint of the genius of Robert (Jim Salners), the mathematician who has long lived at this address. There are gentle musical interludes from composers like Poulenc and Stravinsky, and there is lovely background clarinet work from Maiko Sasaki (playing music of Arthur Benjamin) that combines to create the feel of the kind of wistful neighborhood charm that I would associate with the film, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
When the action begins, Robert is approaching the back porch where his 25 year-old daughter, Catherine (Kay Ann Allmand), sits in a chair looking careworn. We soon gather that the brooding and dysfunctional Catherine has doubts about her own sanity. Her father tries to comfort her with the caution that, “Crazy people don’t sit around wondering if they’re crazy.” Without giving away too much, let’s just say there has been a history of mental problems in the family, and Catherine fears she may be next. As for her father, he has been a longstanding professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago and is considered a genius by many in the field. One of his protegees, young Hal (Ryan Schabach), is very interested in studying the content of the many volumes of notebooks that Robert has accumulated while scribbling his sometimes-brilliant insights. Robert expresses confidence in Hal’s future as a mathematician telling him, “You’re on your way to a promising career. You’ll soon be teaching younger and more irritating versions of yourself!”
The fourth member of the cast is Kim Tobin in the role of Claire, Catherine’s very concerned sister from New York. They are brought together by a family crisis I won’t disclose here, and the soon-to-be-wed Claire is very worried about Catherine’s sanity and future. She encourages Catherine to move to New York where she will be safe and have fun, but Catherine, bitter about years she has spent looking after her father, defiantly declares, “I don’t need a safe place and I don’t want to have any fun!” Need I say there are some heavy-duty relationship clashes in this tense, mysterious and well-crafted play? The supercharged dysfunctional dynamics between the sisters rival those between Catherine and her father. Then it seems for a while that the likable Hal may be the answer to Catherine’s loneliness and despair, but is he? Forgive me, but I must deliberately avoid giving away too much of this complex plot, because half the fun is the collection of unexpected surprises that propel the action both forward and backward in time.
What I can do is say a word or two about the actors. Mr. Salners’ performance is a captivating one. He has a rich voice and an ability to have Robert move freely between emotions of caring concern for his daughter and sudden manic hysteria that is riveting. Miss Allmand, whose appropriately dreary persona in the early moments of the play was quite misleading, ultimately takes us so thoroughly down the road of mental anguish that her performance is nothing short of spell-binding. Likewise, the smartly dressed Miss Tobin (costumes by Fernando Zamudio), brings both a stunning passion and a gentle warmth to her portrayal of Claire. The family clashes of this group might bring to mind the kind of heart-wrenching dynamics we recall from “Death of a Salesman,” or “The Glass Menagerie.” As for the handsome Mr. Schabach, his generally kind and gentle Hal can also shift gears into desperate passion as he tries to find a way to bring Catherine’s confused life into proper focus. His is a very sensitive and fine performance that helps to bring sanity to the troubled world he enters, even as he seeks to bring “elegance” to his mathematical equations. And speaking of elegance, we clearly have it here in this polished and memorable production. Bravo!
“Proof” performances will continue through November 11th with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. All seats are $30 with discounts available for seniors/military/students & groups. Texas Repertory Theatre is located at 14243 Stuebner Airline Rd. just north of F.M. 1960. For tickets and information call 281-583-7573 or visit www.TexRepTheatre.org.
(The Courier 11.3.06)