Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Math, Genius and Trust on stage at Strawshop

Charles Leggett and Anastasia Higham in Proof (John Ulman)
Strawberry Theatre Workshop
Through February 18, 2017

David Auburn’s play, Proof, first produced in 2000 and turned into a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow in 2005, is a layered onion-like family drama that delves into mental illness, genius, love and family relations. Its current production at Strawberry Theatre Workshop includes four strong actors and some evocative scene-change effects that ultimately allow you plenty to think about after an enjoyable visit getting to know Robert and his two daughters Catherine and Claire.

The word “proof” is a brilliant choice for a title because the play revolves around mathematical proofs (the formulas that higher math creates to prove a theory is actually real), and there is also a mystery that needs proving true, and also Catherine fears that she will prove to be mentally ill, herself.
The character Robert (Charles Leggett) is a mathematical genius who has devolved into bipolar disorder. He has recently died young, but had already taken over the life of his youngest daughter Catherine (Anastasia Higham), who cared for him the last five years of his life. Older sister Claire (Allison Standley) returns for the funeral, but also tries to convince Catherine to come to New York and restart a new life.

The “kitchen-sink drama” feel starts with a natural conversation between a father and daughter on the eve of her birthday and establishes the personalities of Robert and Catherine as smart and thoughtful and caring. But we learn that Robert is a ghost and it lays the groundwork for us to begin to believe Catherine might indeed have some mental health issues.

That suspicion allows us to be more on Claire’s side when she clearly wonders about the same problem, since their father began his descent into mental illness in his twenties and Catherine is now 25. Claire is written to potentially be disliked for being pushy and making unsubstantiated assumptions. Standley manages to convey likableness and a somewhat reasonable attitude that helps bring us toward her doubt.

There is a fourth character, Hal (Kevin Kelly). He was a grad student under Robert who has passed his dissertation and become a teacher himself. Finding out that there is a trove of notebooks of Robert’s, he wants to investigate whether there might be any more math proofs that Robert might have been able to solve. He’s also more than a bit interested in Catherine.

When he and Catherine link up romantically, she feels emboldened to show him a notebook she has locked up. It’s a mathematical proof. But whose? Is it Robert’s from a more cogent moment? Is it Catherine’s as she claims? But what if Catherine is mentally ill and her illness is causing her to claim work she doesn’t have the training to create? What does it mean if it really is Catherine’s work? The remainder of the play concerns all those questions.

As directed by Greg Carter, the production is pretty straightforward and all the actors are capable of plenty of subtle emotional shifts. His choices of music and visuals in scenic transitions, projections onto the side of the house, are nicely evocative and emotionally triggering. It’s a well-done evening.

However, there is a bit of a sense of lost opportunity, both for character development and humor. Choosing to keep it “realistic” creates a bit of restraint where a bit more freedom of emotion might enliven the characters. It could help the sister relationship in particular, which is deservedly strained but, in this iteration, almost too distant.

Higham does some of her most sophisticated work to date as she shows her ability to transition from teenage roles to women. Kelly does a nice job being the romantic and abashed Hal.

This is a pretty great piece of writing. With meaty scenes between two characters, it’s easy to see why a lot of acting classes love it, too. The beauty of this work lies in the complexities underneath what is laid out so very simply.

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