Little Theatre of Alexandria ProofBy Bob Ashby • Mar 12th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Little Theatre of Alexandria: (Info) (Web)
Little Theatre of Alexandria, Alexandria, VA
Through March 29th
2:10, with intermission
$18-$20 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed March 9th, 2014
It’s not math but fraught interpersonal dynamics that make the world of Proof go ’round. David Auburn’s play, winner of both a Pulitzer and a Tony in its initial Broadway run, does not cause an audience to care about mathematics in a way parallel, say, to the way that Copenhagen does for physics or the film “The Race for the Double Helix” does for genetics. The play’s between-scenes recitations of arcane mathematical matters, accompanied by chamber music, serve mostly just as atmospherics: the real meat of the script concerns how people deal with death, mental illness, ambition, intellectual excitement, and difficult family relationships.
The Little Theater of Alexandria (LTA) production of the piece is close to perfect. Each of the four characters is clearly drawn and acted by the cast with passion and commitment. The central character, 25-year old Catherine (Anna Fagan), herself a gifted, though uncredentialed, mathematician, has cared for her father through years of an unspecified but thoroughly disabling mental illness, culminating in his death.
Catherine’s emotional journey through the play is less an arc than a roller-coaster, and Fagan captures her depression, anger, pride, fear, dedication, hope, sporadic irrationality, resentment, and sometimes surprising strength. It is one of the oldest theater clichés to say that an actor is supposed to be “in the moment,” but anyone playing this role has to manage very rapid, believable transitions from one feeling to the next, and Fagan is more than up to the task.
Her father, Robert (Chuck Leonard), had been a giant in his field. Seen only retrospectively, through flashbacks or dreams, Robert was an emotionally as well as intellectual powerful figure, simultaneously supporting and intimidating his daughters and his students. In Leonard’s portrayal, Robert is someone who has an extra portion of the life force coursing through him, when he is lucid but even when he is at his maddest.
Auburn gives Robert a delicious monologue about students browsing in bookstores, which Leonard delivers lyrically, as well as a scene in which Robert, full of vitality toward the end of a remission from his illness, believes he has broken through and is creating again as he did in his prime. Catherine picks up his notebook and reads it to him; Leonard conveys the terror Robert feels as he realizes he is once again descending into incoherence.
Catherine’s pragmatic older sister Claire (Elizabeth Keith) arrives to take charge of the arrangements for Robert’s funeral and, not incidentally, to take charge of Catherine’s life. Skeptical of Catherine’s ability to live on her own and manage her affairs, Claire proceeds to insist on making decisions for her sibling, such as selling the family home and prodding Catherine to move to New York. Well-meaning — while having left the heavy lifting for her father’s care to Catherine, she has financially supported her sister and father through their father’s illness — Claire is well short of being a villain.
Still, in Keith’s take on the character, she is domineering, all to quick to deny Catherine the chance to make her own decisions about her life, and disrespectful, all too quick to disbelieve Catherine’s mathematical prowess. No sooner has Catherine been relieved of the burden of caring for her father than she must fight for her autonomy from Claire. Keith makes Claire an antagonist, someone against whom Catherine must struggle to find her way. I only wish that Keith might have found more opportunities to illuminate Claire’s interior landscape, so that we might better understand her as more than a somewhat unpleasant foil for Catherine.
The fourth member of the quartet is Hal (Josh Goldman), a former student of Robert’s, now a university faculty member who feels his career is stagnating. As written, Hal has chronically mixed and uncertain motives. By turns cute, sneaky, ambitious, caring, callous, cautious and waffling, and intellectually engaged, Hal is a character difficult for an actor or an audience to make full sense of. By play’s end, it is harder to get a solid understanding of Hal than of any of the other characters, a result more attributable to Auburn’s writing than Goldman’s choices as an actor. Goldman makes him appealing (except, perhaps, when his sexism comes to the fore when he doubts Catherine’s authorship of a potentially groundbreaking paper) but never quite trustworthy.
The action takes place on the rear patio of Catherine’s and Robert’s house. Show in and show out, LTA probably does realistic sets better than any other community theater company in the area, and Dan Remmer’s design for Proof is no exception. The weathered clapboards, older curtains and blinds, doors and outdoor stairs that haven’t been painted in a while, all testify to the deferred maintenance of an ordinary urban house during Robert’s long illness. The set pays attention to even minor details, like a hose compatible in color with the brick portion of a house wall.
One sees spectacular, showy lighting designs in some strong community theater shows. Franklin C. Coleman’s design for this production isn’t one of them. What it is instead is a thing of delicate beauty, as subtle shades of color delineate and create the mood for the play’s differing seasons and times of day. The initial night scene, for example, is in low-intensity blues; a summer afternoon is in brighter yellows; a late fall scene is in paler tones, with shadows of bare tree branches projected onto the house. Additional touches include a red revolving light for a police car and various porch and window lights, all fitting their scenes without calling attention to themselves. The only minor problem seemed to be a pretty consistent cold spot down left center.
Susan Devine’s direction kept the pace consistent and the emotions and interactions of the characters real and believable throughout. Even the bigger passages, like Robert’s monologues or the arguments between Catherine and Hal or Claire, were character moments rather than actor moments. Thanks to her and the cast, LTA’s production never loses sight of the key point that Proof is a play about emotions, not equations.
Proof explores the mind of a young woman who may be a brilliant mathematician and who also may be mentally ill. Math is the perfect metaphor for mental illness, representing its complexity, and that makes it difficult for most of us to understand. Proof also uses math to express the relationships among the play’s four characters by linking those with mathematical ability while alienating others. Or does the mental illness create the links and alienation?
A generous woman came to one of our rehearsals and told her story about taking care of someone she loves who is mentally ill. She also said she thinks the arts, and plays such as Proof, will educate communities about mental illness and help remove the stigma, the way the arts helped homosexuality in the 1980s. It is with this sense of responsibility that we present Proof.
Photos by Matt Liptak
- Robert: Chuck Leonard
- Catherine: Anna Fagan
- Hal: Josh Goldman
- Claire: Elizabeth Keith
- Producers: Lynn O’Connell, Kevin O’Dowd, Sharon Field, Bobbie Herbst, Rance Willis
- Director: Susan Devine
- Stage Managers: Mary Beth Smith-Toomey, Kira Hogan
- Set Design: Dan Remmers
- Set Constuction: Dan Remmers
- Assisted by: Chris Feldman, Daniel Froggett, Jeff Gathers, Jim Hutzler, Ben Norcross, JanaLee Sponberg
- Lighting Design: Franklin C. Coleman
- Costume Design: Hadley Armstrong
- Sound Design: David Correia
- Assisted by: Sean Doyle, Margaret Evans-Joyce, David Hale, David Rampy, Janice Rivera, Gene Warner
- Set Painting: Kevin O’Dowd
- Assisted by: Jamie Blake, Scott Daugherty, Bobby Herbst, Leslie Reed
- Set Decoration: Russell Wyland
- Master Electrician: Jennifer Lyman
- Assisted by: Jeff Auerbach, Marzanne Claiborne, Pamela Leonowich, Doug Olmsted, Nancy Owens, Becky Patton, Dick Schwab, Sherry Singer, Joanne Tompkins, Donna Reynolds
- Property Design: Leslie Reed
- Assisted by: Emma Baskir, Jean Coyle, Betty Dolan, Carlyn Lightfoot, Jack Rollins, Rebecca Sheehy, Adrian Steel, with Art Snow assisting for “Special Effects”
- Wardrobe: Margaret Aiken Snow
- Assisted by: Alisa Beyninson, Jamie Blake, Patty Greksouk, Barbara Helsing, Bobbie Herbst
- Rigging: Russell Wyland
- Photographers: Josh Goldman, Matt Liptak
- Audition Table: Maria Ciarrocchi
- Assisted by: Jay Cohen, Phylis Gruber, Barbara Helsing, Patty Lord, Eddy Roger Parker
- Double Tech Dinner: Cyndi Martin
- Opening Night Party: Carole Steele, Jim Palumbo
- Assisted by: Robert Kraus, Valerie Larkin, Shirley Lord-Cooper, Harriet Mathews, Iolaire McFadden, Susan McFadden
Disclaimer: Little Theatre of Alexandria provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10211.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.