David Auburn’s play Proof was a massive Off-Broadway hit in early 2000 which took Broadway by storm later that year, going on to win three Tony Awards including Best Play as well as the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It has fallen off the theatrical radar a bit since its initial production and it is so great to see this production at SVSU embrace the intensity and heart of this particular play.
Proof follows Catherine (Abby Burgess) as she deals with the death of her father, Robert (Ethan Bach), a celebrated mathematician and professor in Chicago who fell victim to delusional mental illnesses in his later years. While struggling with her father’s death, Catherine has the lingering fear that she, too, might have issues with her mental health. She must also contend with Hal (Austin Butterfield), a former student of her father’s, and her sister, Claire (Megan Meyer), who is adamant about getting Catherine away from Chicago and all the bad memories she has there. When Hal discovers a notebook in Robert’s office that contains a mathematical proof that could change the world, everyone begins to question everything they’ve known about Catherine and just how much she takes after her father, both mathematically and mentally.
Photo By David Rzeszutek
SVSU professor David Rzeszutek has assembled a cast that is up to the many challenges that this play presents. Burgess shows us the emotional struggle that Catherine is going through but still manages to give the needed bite to her more sarcastic and humorous lines. This keeps the play from dragging too far into maudlin territory. Her interactions with the other characters provide some of the most satisfying moments of the night, particularly the initial flirtation with Butterfield, the sibling squabbling with Meyer, and the ever-dutiful daughter jumping back in to help her father which we see in a flashback late in act two. Butterfield nails the quirky side of his math geek character who struggles to win (and keep) Catherine’s interest. We never quite saw a move from the awkwardness of their first interactions into a more genuine feeling of attraction, but this is a small quibble given the more pressing plot matters happening around it. Meyer was excellent as the dutiful, mostly absent, older sister. You could sense the love she had for her sister, while also coming to terms with not being present in the final days of her father’s life. Bach’s character is seen briefly at the beginning of the show then entirely in flashbacks sprinkled throughout the second act. He created a character that clearly loved his children and his work, but was dealing with mental health issues that were bigger and stronger than he could ever be. It is always a struggle when college students play characters older than themselves. As a freshman Bach had the unenviable task of not only playing a role that is almost three times his age, but also playing father to two actors who are older than he. While there were a few moments where his physicality showed his true age, he did admirable work throughout developing Robert’s ongoing breakdown.
Photo By David Rzeszutek
From the moment you enter the theatre, you are transported into a soundscape of a Chicago neighborhood, courtesy of sound designer Lucas Inman. Birds chirping, car engines starting, planes flying overhead, the audience was completely immersed in this environment. While certain moments almost overpowered the volume of the actors on stage, the overall effect worked very well, particularly when everything shifted late in the first act. Lighting design by Brittany LaCross was tricky at times, specifically the moments on the roof of the porch. Shadows and dark spots became somewhat of a distraction during more intense and fast paced moments. There were subtle, but effective transitions in lighting during the act two flashbacks, especially noticeable with starker lighting in a scene taking place during the cold winter months. It’s strange to call the backyard of a run down house in Chicago beautiful, but the set designed by Jerry Dennis was a character in itself, giving the audience so many realistic touches to notice and appreciate without being distracting. The play firmly plants itself in the early 2000s and while that doesn’t necessarily mean that clothes from almost twenty years ago need to look “vintage”, costume design, also by Burgess, did a nice job of not looking too contemporary without turning it into a “period piece”.
Photo by Mike Randolph
Proof is a prime example of a diamond in the rough. Plays from many years ago tend not to stay in the public consciousness as well as musicals do, but this is one that absolutely should. Kudos all around to SVSU for tackling this production allowing its students and audience to witness and appreciate such a well written piece of theatre.
Proof runs at SVSU in the Malcolm Field Theatre October 31st-November 2nd at 7:30pm, and November 3rd at 3:00pm. Tickets are available at the box office or online at https://www.svsu.edu/theatre/.