The title of David Auburn’s Proof is the perfect microcosm of play itself: an elegant, clever, double entendre that superficially refers to math, but upon closer examination reveals something much more complicated. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play in 2001, Proof is a delightful play for all audiences, not just math geeks (so long as you don’t mind quite a bit of swearing). Combining all of the suspense of a modern who-done-it with the anguish of mental illness through a masterful use of wry humor, it is a play that has more than earned its place in the pantheon of great American plays.
Catherine (played by Abby Burgess) has spent years caring for her brilliant but unstable father, Robert (played by Ethan Bach), a famous mathematician. When her aggressively helpful sister, Claire (played by Megan Meyer, a returning guest artist), arrives to help take care of things, Claire’s world is thrown into turmoil, a situation only made more turbulent by the presence of Hal (played by Austin Butterfield), a cute former student of her father’s. When Hal uncovers a groundbreaking proof among Robert’s things, Claire and Hal must decide whether or not to believe Catherine’s story.
SVSU’s strong cast, directed by David Rzeszutek, is well-suited to the play, which contains three characters that are age appropriate for college-age actors and one that is not. Ethan Bach, taking on the tough job of playing a character 40 years his elder, does not overplay Robert, wisely choosing to focus on the relationships rather than attempting to fool the audience with gimmicky mannerisms. The choice works, allowing us to accept his youthful energy as a convention of the play.
Photo by David Rzeszutek
Abby Burgess, a naturally charismatic actor whom I have enjoyed watching over the past few years, is given the role of a lifetime in Catherine. She careens from whiny sulking to flirtation to angry outbursts without it ever feeling forced or inauthentic. She is clearly and wonderfully invested in the moment. Catherine’s dry sense of humor tends to get lost in the more dramatic moments, though, and I hope that as Abby settles into the role, she is able to find the balance that makes Catherine such an appealing heroine. Austin Butterfield and Megan Meyer are perfectly suited to their roles as well: Austin as the awkwardly charming suitor, and Megan as the tightly wound epitome of urban slickness.
Photo by Mike Randolph
Costumes by Abby Burgess (pulling double duty, apparently!) and Makeup/Hair Design by Chloe Velez deserve high praise for successfully passing off a teenager as a middle-aged professor, and for making Claire’s satin and polish feel so out of place in the scruffy, unkempt world of Robert’s backyard. That said, I will take this opportunity to point out what I thought was the biggest miss of the night: Claire’s hangover entrance. I don’t understand why the choice was made to have a fully made-up, not remotely hungover Claire enter moments after the text indicates otherwise.
Jerry Dennis’ autumnal scenic design is beautifully detailed, with rust stains running down the faded siding of the home and a leaf-clogged fire ring made from old cinder blocks. I loved the set, but I also wish it had been 15 feet closer to me. The sea of unused stage between the actors and the audience made the actors’ job of creating an intimate space much more difficult.
Photo by David Rzeszutek
The lighting design by Brittany LaCross showed flashes of brilliance, especially in the morning scene following the party and the transition into the winter scene. I felt there was a great deal of unrealized potential for lights and sound (designed by Lucas Inman) to work together to make the scene transitions more intentional and clearer to the audience who were often confused about whether they should applaud.
Rhiannon Hall deserves special recognition for her work as the dramaturg on the play. Through program notes and a cleverly conceived display in the lobby, the audience was able to learn about the themes of sexism and mental illness this production is seeking to explore. Additionally, the online marketing for the play also involved short videos from each actor that underscored and introduced these themes in the weeks leading up to the performances.
Overall, this production of Proof sits on the capable shoulders of a cast who clearly love the characters they play and the story they are telling. The combined effect is a charming and suspenseful night of thoroughly enjoyable theatre and a chance to see the play that set the bar very high for the rest of the 21st century’s American playwrights.
Proof runs through Sunday, November 3 at SVSU’s Malcolm Field Theatre. Tickets are $15 and are available either online (www.etix.com/ticket/v/14187) or at the box office.