David Auburn’s 2001 play Proof is an exquisitely crafted Tony award winner about Catherine, a young woman who gave up her early 20s to care for her father, a renowned mathematician suffering from mental illness. The night before her 25th birthday, she wrestles with her overbearing older sister Claire, awkward advances from her father’s former student Hal, and the question of how much of her father’s genius and/or madness she inherited. Darting between mathematics, sibling relationships, mental health and trust, Front Foot Theatre’s production brings out the script’s humour and uses stark character contrast to easily generate external conflict. There is little subtlety in this interpretation though, and an unusual casting choice exacerbates this.
Of the cast of four, they are all undoubtedly excellent, and three of them are mostly consistent with their Chicago accents. But director Sebastien Blanc focuses on character clashes whilst neglecting lead character Catherine’s inner battle, here played by Julia Papp, an actor from Hungary. Papp performs in both a language and accent that aren’t native to her, huge challenges to overcome in order to achieve any sort of in-depth characterization. She does get there near the end of the play; up to this point, she relies on sarcasm and shouting to convey a generalized emotional state. Her accent is also frustratingly inconsistent. There is great chemistry between the cast as a whole though, particularly Papp with Kim Hardy as her father’s ex-student Hal, and in her final scene with her father (Tim Hardy). Their more intimate moments are lovely. Papp certainly has talent as a performer, but the obstacles in Proof create a constant struggle for her. Mary-Ann Cafferkey, as Catherine’s older sister Claire, a no-nonsense currency analyst living in Manhattan with her fiancé who has no patience for Catherine’s issues, balances Catherine’s emotional instability. Her stereotyped interpretation is fun to hate, but Blanc ignores her genuine love and worry for Catherine. The male characters are played with much more nuance than the women, despite them being smaller roles, so it appears that there are some deeper directorial issues present.
Michael Leopold’s dilapidated house is a wonderful set, more complex than most in fringe theatre. It looks well-crafted and sturdy, an excellent finishing touch to a play grounded in modern naturalism. The sound design is an original composition by Chris Roe, blending a range of emotions with the digital precision of the mathematics that feature so heavily in Auburn’s script.
Without a doubt, Proof is a beautiful play. It’s unsurprising that it won several awards during its Broadway run and the play itself is the highlight of this production, followed by the design. The direction neglects the inner emotional life, particularly of the female characters, but most performances help redeem this. It’s a play rarely mounted in the UK, and the opportunity to catch it should not be missed despite this production’s shortcomings.
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