“If I go back to the beginning, I could start it over again. I could go line by line; try and find a shorter way. I could try to make it... better.” - David Auburn, Proof
There are times when really fine art happens in an elegant theatre with velvet curtains, lush seats, champagne in the lobby, and thousands of people sharing the experience with you. And there are other times when the mustiness of an old theatre is almost overwhelming, your seat is tentative at best, you’re drinking a fuzzy navel wine cooler, and few more than two dozen people share the space. And I’m here to tell you that setting in no way lessens the art if the art is good. And the art was good last night at the Ritz Theatre in downtown Newberry where the Newberry Community Players presented Proof, a play by David Auburn.
Directed by Courtney Cooper, a recent Pennsylvania transplant to Chapin, Proof is an older play – it premiered in 2000, winning the Pulitzer and multiple Tony Awards in 2001 – that still holds up well due to the tightness of the dialogue and the timelessness of issues it both touches on and full out embraces, including family dynamics, mental health, gender inequality, and more. In the less than two decades since the play came out our cultural acceptance of (and curiosity about) the vast spectrum of mental health, idiosyncrasies, and function has changed exponentially as we recognize a much broader spectrum of mental capabilities and nuance than ever before. The story of a family both dealing with the end game of mental health issues for Robert, the family’s patriarch, and possibly (fearfully) also looking at the beginning of the same issues for Catherine, the youngest daughter, Proof is offered in two acts with the single simple set of a back porch and small yard. Additional characters are Claire, an older daughter/sister, and Hal, Robert’s graduate student. With the exception of Claire, all the characters are high level mathematicians and the primary conflict is the discovery (proof) of who wrote a ground breaking proof about prime numbers.
Having seen this story twice before – once on Broadway when the lead role of Catherine was played by Anne Heche and that of Hal was played by Neil Patrick Harris, aka Doogie Howser, and again on film when the respective roles were played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal – it was impossible not to compare the treatment of the characters by both the director and players. For my money, I’d readily toss both the brooding Paltrow and the manipulative Heche off the stage in exchange for the honesty and vulnerability Amy Brower brings to the part. Where both stars created a sense of annoyance in the viewers, probably due to the difficult personalities they created in the character of Catherine, Brower portrays a character with which one can identify and empathize. I felt the anxiety of her fear that she, too, may carry the same imperfections as her father. (With Heche and Paltrow, I almost wanted them to!) Her body language and costuming also helped move the story 18 years into the future.
Playing the role of Robert, Catherine and Claire’s mathematical genius of a father, Lee O. Smith took great pain, too, in making the character his own, offering theatrical skills one would never expect to find in a musty old theatre in Newberry. The scene in which Catherine ultimately reads from his notebook and the response Smith gives was nothing short of mesmerizing. In many ways Smith channels Kevin Pollock if Pollock were a better actor.
Tabitha Davis plays the role of Claire, the older sister you love to hate, with admirable smugness and condescension and Brava to her for that, while Sam Hetler in the part of Hal, is the man-boy you want to do the right thing by Catherine. We’ve seen Hetler’s work behind the scenes at several theatres in town and it was good to see him front and center where he belongs.
Proof runs through February 24th at the Ritz Theatre at 1511 Main Street in Newberry and tickets are only $12. For more information go to theritzonline.com or call 803-597-1636.