Proof exceeds expectations, on stage at the Red Sandcastle in Toronto
It seems my thing recently is seeing Pulitzer Prize winning plays at the Red Sandcastle Theatre. I figure the Pulitzer means the play itself will likely be pretty good, and I always love the intimacy of that Queen East venue. So it was with high expectations that I took in Theatre UnBlocked’s production of David Auburn’s Proof.
It exceeded those expectations.
The audience settles into their seats just a few feet away from a young woman, on her front porch, trying—and failing miserably—to get comfortable herself. The wicker bench draped in blankets should be cozy and accommodating, but isn’t.
Even before the play starts, Karen Slater shows us an intriguing duality in Catherine: her body language is purposeful and imposing, yet she seems to be uncomfortable in her own skin. Soon, we discover why. As the daughter of a famous and recently deceased mathematician whose genius was quelled by mental illness, she fears she may have inherited both a brilliant mind and the seeds of its eventual collapse.
As she struggles with memories of her father, we learn how she put her own math career on hold to care for him. There are uplifting scenes with Dan Willmott as her father, Robert, where he is jocular and encouraging, an almost ideal role model. In one heartbreaking moment, though, we watch his face slowly change from manic enthusiasm to confused defeat as he (and the audience) realize how far his mind has slipped. It is truly heartbreaking, and a masterful and nuanced performance.
Andrea Irwin as Catherine’s sister may be my favourite character. As a contrast to Catherine’s frumpy sweaters and trembling self-doubt, Claire is a smartly dressed and mannered. It’s amusing to see her New York socialite persona clashing with Catherine’s sloppy appearance and careless attitude, but deeper than this, I found her patience and determination inspiring.
Catherine’s dilemma is this: while Claire tries to drag her away from the house and memory of their father, Catherine gets romantically involved with one of her father’s former students. With his ‘aw shucks’ charm, Chris Peterson’s Hal is immediately endearing. Hal is searching through her father’s old notebooks to find something of mathematical value hidden amidst a mass of incoherent scribbles.
There is a nice mystery that develops during the second act as Catherine claims that she—not her father—is the author of a ground-breaking mathematical proof contained in one of the notebooks. As she’s forced to prove that the proof is hers, the story touches on the difficulties she faces as a woman trying to establish herself in a male-dominated field.
The content of this proof isn’t the point of the story, so I understand the audience isn’t meant to know the details, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes a little at the way scenes fade to black as characters begin to describe the actual math involved. It bugged me how conscious I was of this very intentional vagueness.
Overall, I agree with director Carl Jackson’s note: “The text flows like the elegance of a mathematical formula. Proof’s like music.” Indeed it is. And there is an equal elegance in the way Jackson and his cast use the very small playing area. The action feels dynamic, the emotions feel true and the production as a whole is very compelling.
- Proof is playing until March 19, 2017 at the Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen St. East)
- Shows run Friday to Sunday at 8pm, with a Sunday matinee on March 12 at 2pm
- Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door
- Advance Tickets can be purchased online
Photo of Dan Willmott, Karen Slater and Chris Peterson by Bruce Peters