Game six, Red Sox-Yankees, on the car radio. The Red Sox have just pulled ahead by one run in a crazy seventh inning, and if they don't keep this lead, they're dead.
But I can't listen. I've gotta go watch Vermont Stage Company perform a play I've already seen twice. I know I wasn't the only one in the audience at Prooflast Wednesday night thinking, "Thishad better be good."
And I know I wasn't the only one who, as soon as it began, breathed a sigh of relief.
Granted, on first glance the set by UVM's Jeff Modereger doesn't look very promising: just a square of lawn surrounded on four sides by the audience, with an octagonal wooden picnic table in one corner and a few white patio chairs in the other. It's so spare it's almost daring, because an elaborately detailed version of the ramshackle Chicago rowhouse where Proof takes place was virtually a fifth character in previous productions. The house is discussed so much in the play that one would think it almost has to be represented, even though all the action transpires in its backyard.
But surprise -- the house is not missed. The VSC space is intimate to begin with, and the unobtrusive set makes it that much easier for us to key into the complicated family dynamics of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize - and Tony-winning play. In fact, while I cherish memories of the original Broadway production with Mary-Louise Parker, and found much to admire in Lost Nation's rendition in July, at VSC I was moved more than ever before by Auburn's insight into the intricate geometries that bond parents and children.
For that, much credit is due Blake Robison, the founder of VSC, who returned from his present job as artistic director of the University of Tennessee's resident professional theater to direct Proof.
The opening moments of a production aren't dissimilar from the opening moments of a ballgame. Just as you know from the first throw whether a pitcher is on top of his game, you know from the first beat of a play whether the cast and crew have brought their best stuff.
Robison clearly brought his. In the dark we hear a Chopin piano nocturne, slowly fading as a fuzzy half-light comes up on Catherine (Ericka Kreutz), a young woman scrunched up in a chair under a pink blanket. Her father Robert (Stephen Bradbury), a renowned mathematician, stands off to the side, and in their easy banter we get very quickly all that they share: a brisk, sarcastic sense of humor, an ability to call each other on their tricks, a deep love of numbers. But the staging is just off-kilter, just dreamlike enough to allow for the possibility that their relationship is not all that it seems.
Throughout, Robison makes the problematic theater-in-the-roundconfiguration work for the play. He knows when to move his actors around the space, and he knows the power of letting them stay still; one potent image early on finds the usually restless Robert alone at the picnic table, the spotlight and the isolation suggesting the ravaged man we'll get to know later.
Robison also knows when to speed things up, setting an appropriately snappy pace when the characters are battling each other's formidable brains, and when to slow down. Toward the end of the play, there's a pin-drop moment when Catherine must make a decision about an offering of support from her father's protege Hal (Jeremy Fischer); in the silence before her response, the audience, like Hal, holds its breath.
Of course, none of this would work if it weren't for Robison's exemplary cast, whose realization of the characters' inner lives allows us to understand their connections with one another. From her performance as Catherine, Ericka Kreutz makes me want to see her in all kinds of roles; she brings that many colors to her portrayal. And that mercurial quality is vital, because Auburn has created a character of multiple dimensions: a woman both confident and terrified of her own potential, who knows she's smarter than the room but is unable to see her way out of the trough she's drowning in except to slash out in self-defense. She's given to hilarious verbal attacks that seek and destroy any kind of
suspect motives in others.
Kreutz has a way of chewing on her words, stretching them into extra syllables, that can be devastatingly funny; her first reference to her "sisterrrr" tells us a lot about her vexed relationship with Claire (Rebecca Eddy), the businesslike sibling we meet later in the play. Yetwe also see Catherine, in flashbacks, as her younger, more hopeful self. While Kreutz overdoes the perkiness a bit in those sequences (think Renee Zellwegger in squeaky mode), she also lets us see glimmerings of those old hopes in the Catherine of the present day so that the character seems all of a piece, on a continuum that lets us understand where she's been and where she might be able to go.
Kreutz is matched superbly by Bradbury as her father. He conveys not only the effortless charisma of Robert -- the easy brilliance that, we're told, attracted acolytes like Hal -- but also the manipulativeness and terror of a man who knows he's losing his mind. He's dangerous, both to himself and to Catherine, which makes her actions that much more understandable.
Catherine can be a little scary herself. Her rages, as Kreutz plays them, are almost operatic, so that you almost sympathize with her sister's doubts about her sanity. Eddy's Claire is a woman whose every strategem is as tailored as her elegant pin-striped pantsuit, but whose concern for her sister is genuine. Jeremy Fischer's Hal must also navigate the stormy waters of a relationship with Catherine -- a challenge complicated by the fact that he's attracted to her.
Though Fischer trips himself up once or twice with his own rapidfire speaking rhythms, he's very convincing as an admitted math "nerd" who's also a regular guy. His rapport with Kreutz, particularly in their first tentative moves toward romance, is palpable; together, they make discussions of higher math seem like a heady form of foreplay.
Special mention should be made of the intelligently chosen costumes by Jenny Chappelle Fulton and John Paul Devlin's sensitive lighting; props, too, to the props crew (note the contents of Hal's backpack). But finally, what makes this production so successful is its grasp of the intangibles: the invisible threads of love, guilt, ambition, defeat and most of all trust which both fetter and separate these characters. And that's only right, because as Catherine reminds Hal at a crucial juncture in the play, "You can't prove anything."
In human relationships, unlike mathematical equations, sometimes you just have to believe.
P.S. I know, I know, that's what they said about the Red Sox. But there's always next year.
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Ben Maddox: Just chiming in as a non cult robot. Thanks for the article Ken!