Preview: Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof

Photo by Bruce Peters: Dan Willmott, Karen Slater & Chris Peterson

New kid on the block Theatre UnBlocked is off to a great start, mounting its inaugural production, David Auburn’s Proof, directed by Carl Jackson, to a packed preview house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

The elegant beauty of math and the minds behind it comes to life in this intimate production. Catherine (Karen Slater), who has been living at the family home outside Chicago, sits on the back porch and chats with her father Robert (Dan Willmott). Thing is, Robert’s dead—and his funeral is tomorrow.

Robert was a brilliant mathematician and professor; he was also living with mental illness, a condition that irreparably damaged his ability to work and thrive. Despite the urging of her well-meaning older sister Claire (Andrea Brown), Catherine had eschewed institutionalization for their father, and left her own studies in math behind, leaving the work she loved for a dearly beloved father. Numb and exhausted, Catherine’s interest in connecting with people is renewed when Hal (Chris Peterson), a mathematician and former student of Robert’s comes to the house to sort through Robert’s papers and notebooks.

Drawn by Hal’s drive, and their shared love and appreciation for her father, Catherine gradually opens up and shares another notebook with Hal; one that’s been locked away in her father’s desk. It looks like Robert’s handwriting, but she says it’s hers. And what it contains is a 40-page proof that mathematicians have been trying to work out for a very long time. Concerned that Catherine inherited their father’s unstable mind, Claire has her doubts; she’s also been trying to coax Catherine to come live with her in Manhattan, as she intends to sell the house. Hal has doubts too; and offers to show the proof to some colleagues to check its veracity and authenticate its authorship. Is Catherine crazy? Or is she a genius? And does Hal genuinely care for her—or is he using her for a treasure hunt?

Simply staged in an intimate space, with the sounds of crickets and birds setting us firmly in the easy lull of a home outside the urban buzz of the city’s core, this production of Proof combines the poetry of nature with the beauty of science and mathematics.

The cast does a remarkable job with this story of math, family, mental illness and gifted minds. Slater gives a lovely, layered performance as the troubled and brilliant Catherine. An exceptional but neglected mind, Catherine puts up walls to separate herself from others, and humour and sarcasm are her weapons of choice; all in defense of the deeply hurt, tired and lost girl beneath. She knows what she knows—but fears that, like her father, she may be going crazy. Willmott brings a gentle, good-humoured cheekiness to Robert; a mathematician with the heart of a poet, and a brilliant but unstable mind—a driven man immersed in his work. The two-hander scenes between Catherine and Robert are both tender and sharply funny; revealing a genuine love, understanding and appreciation—a pairing of kindred spirits.

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Karen Slater & Andrea Irwin in Proof – photo by Bruce Peters

Irwin does a fabulous job mining the many facets of Claire, shifting between gentle caregiver and ‘big sister knows best,’ not to mention one hell of a funny hangover performance. Claire genuinely cares about Catherine’s welfare, but with a mind on the practical issues at hand, wants to sell the family home and keep Catherine close. Like Catherine, she’s concerned that her sister may be on the same path as their father; and while she also inherited some serious math skills and works as a currency analyst, there’s a tinge of painful sibling rivalry in that she didn’t have as close a relationship with Robert—or her sister’s brilliant mind. Peterson brings an adorkable charm and boyish drive to Hal, the mathematician who plays drums in a geek rock band. Like Catherine, Hal was close to Robert, who was a mentor and perhaps even a father figure to him. Reluctant to believe in Catherine’s abilities, he finds it hard to fathom that she authored this newly discovered proof—a reminder that, even 17 years after Proof was first produced, male-dominated STEM careers still present the challenge of gender-based assumptions. And you know what they say about ‘assume.’

Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof.

Proof officially opens tonight and continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 19. Advance tickets are available online—strongly recommended, given the intimate space and the size of last night’s preview audience. Go check out what the kids at Theatre UnBlocked are doing with this timely and thoughtful production.

You can also keep up with Theatre UnBlocked on Twitter.

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Casual cruelty & family secrets in ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant August: Osage County

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Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photos by Bruce Peters

Alumnae Theatre Company cordially invites you to attend a family gathering at the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Alumnae opened its production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County on the mainstage last night. Directed by Victoria Shepherd and featuring a talented ensemble, this is family dysfunction at its grittiest, no holds barred best.

When the Weston family patriarch (Thomas Gough) goes missing, middle daughter Ivy (Andrea Lyons) – the only child who stayed in town – rallies the family around her ailing mother Violet (Marie Carriere Gleason). Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Carol McLennan) and husband Charlie (Rob Candy) are the first to arrive, and we get a sense of the estrangement that underpins the family dynamic. The Weston’s oldest daughter Barbara (Kelly-Marie Murtha) is the most wanted – but least wanting – to be there; she arrives from Colorado with husband Bill (Paul Cotton) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Melinda Jordan) in tow. Add to this mix youngest Weston girl Karen (Kathleen Jackson Allamby) and fiancé Steve (Chris Peterson), and cousin Little Charles (Neil Cameron), and the family circus is complete – occasionally witnessed from the outside by housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Pearl Ho) and Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Andrew Batten). The atmosphere becomes rife with nostalgia (for better or worse), secrets and schemes as things fall apart and come together only to fall apart again and again.

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Marie Carriere Gleason & Andrea Lyons

Nice work all around from this large, engaging cast. The play runs two and a half hours, plus intermission, but doesn’t feel like it. The Weston family women anchor this story – and the cast is particularly strong here. Gleason’s Violet is a complex puzzle of illness, addiction and survivor; quick to offer unsolicited – and decidedly not feminist – advice to the women in her life, her brutal honesty is shockingly unforgiving. Moments of manipulation and Hollywood-calibre drama queen can turn (seemingly) into flashes of genuine tenderness. Lyons gives a lovely, multi-layered performance as the put-upon Ivy; a character that could easily become a one-dimensional family doormat, she pushes back with a sharp wit and dark sense of humour. She has a pure heart and the patience of a saint, but as the main butt of her mother’s criticism, even she has her limits. Murtha’s Barbara is the picture of a woman on the edge, struggling with a complex set of emotions as her whole world is crumbling around her. The family rock, she strives to keep things together even as she’s falling apart herself – by turns angry, exasperated, protective and acerbically funny, putting out one fire as another appears. Allamby’s Karen is a beautiful contradiction; a high-energy chatterbox, Karen strives for self-awareness and adulthood, but comes off as flakey and deluded, with a poignant, child-like quality to her rose-coloured family nostalgia, born of selective memory. McLennan’s Mattie Fae, like her sister Violet, is a complex woman of contradiction – as cruel in her judgemental criticism (in her case, aimed at her son Little Charles) as she is fiercely protective of her family, including her son. And Jordan brings a precocious, wise child edge to Jean; a self-possessed young film buff coming into herself as she deals with her parents’ relationship issues.

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Pearl Ho & Thomas Gough

Other stand-outs include Gough’s wry-witted, melancholy alcoholic Beverly; a lauded poet and academic at the end of his rope, we only see him at the top of the play, but his presence resonates and stays with us. Batten brings an understated, quiet and boyish bashfulness and sense of anticipation to the Sheriff, a former beau of Barbara’s. And Peterson’s Steve is both charming and skeevy; a smooth operator under that sweet, helpful exterior.

It’s like watching a train wreck – and you can’t look away. The high drama of this family gathering is tempered by sharp-edged, dark humour – which the family uses for both self-protection and sniper attacks – and occasional moments of genuine, loving connection. Nothing brings out a family’s true colours like tragedy.

With shouts to set designer Alexis Chubb’s minimalist, multi-level set, with its inventive and effective multiple playing areas and nooks for the various family vignettes. And to John Stuart Campbell for the sound design and original composition; his song “Can’t Run Far Enough” features vocals by Vivien Shepherd and Ron Smith on harmonica – and haunting, wistful western sounds.

Casual cruelty and family secrets abound in Alumnae’s ferociously funny, devastatingly poignant production of August: Osage County.

August: Osage County continues on the Alumnae mainstage until April 23; check here for ticket purchase/info. Performances include a pre-show chat with the design team at noon tomorrow (Sun, Apr 10); and a post-show talkback with the cast and crew on Sun, Apr 17.

Related trivia/info: Former Alumnae President (and damn fine actor) Dinah Watts is in a London Community Players’ production of August: Osage County in London, ON right now. Lett’s first play Killer Joe is in production at Coal Mine Theatre till April 24 (I’m seeing it on Tuesday). And founder/playwright at Cue6 Theatre Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman (who was in Alumnae’s production of Wit, and has play We Three running now at Tarragon) is on the Steppenwolf Theater Company’s literary team for the world premiere of Letts’ play Mary Page Marlowe.

Oh yeah, and here’s the awesome trailer for the Alumnae production of August: Osage County (video by Nicholas Porteous):