Ann Arbor Civic Theatre finds the character-driven "Proof" a good fit on its Second Stage
Theater is sometimes about spectacle: chandeliers that crash before our eyes, ocean liners that seem to sail across a stage, or bloody battles at a Paris barricade.
Alex Duncan was interested in a different kind of theater when she suggested directing David Auburn’s Proof for the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s Second Stage. The play’s intimate drama of a troubled young woman and her relationships seemed right for the Civic’s small studio theater and Duncan’s minimalist approach.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “The language is almost poetic. I’ve always liked dialogue and character-driven things as opposed to, I guess, a little more flash going on. It’s fun digging into the language and working with the characters and figuring out what the actors are going to bring to it and blend that with what I see in the show.”
Duncan, who graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a drama major, directed a Main Stage Civic Theatre production of Arsenic and Old Lace last year and when applications went out for production ideas this year, she proposed Proof. It wasn’t selected for the Main Stage, but in the second round of interviews it was picked for Second Stage.
“I had done a scene from Proof as one of my finals when I was at Eastern,” she said. “I read the script and sort of fell in love with it and then forgot about it for a while, until I was looking for something to propose next time applications came around. I borrowed a few scripts from a friend and Proof was in there and I said, 'Oh yeah, I love this show.' It was sort of that instant feeling that this was the project I needed to be working on.”
Proof, which opens Feb. 7 at Civic’s Studio Theatre, revolves around Catherine, the daughter of a professor at the University of Chicago hailed as mathematics genius. As the play opens, Catherine’s father Robert brings a bottle of champagne to celebrate her 25th birthday. Catherine is also a gifted mathematician, but she feels overwhelmed by her father’s career and reputation. He tries to reassure her, but we soon learn that the father is an image in her mind because her father died a week earlier. Auburn’s play dissects Catherine’s relationship with her father, her protective and controlling older sister Claire, and a former student of her father with a romantic interest in Catherine. Catherine is also struggling with the onset of the same mental illness that cut short her father’s career.
Duncan said that mathematics plays a major role throughout the play as Catherine, her father, and his student, Hal, all put a high value on their ability to do complex mathematics as a validation of who they are individuals.
“I love watching that unfold within the script and among the actors. It’s all incestuously connected,” Duncan said.
Duncan said the father-daughter relationship is a good one.
“I think they have a playful relationship, they are very close but there is some tension in their relationship, obviously, as Catherine had to become his caretaker,” she said. “They still have a lot in common. We only see Robert in three scenes throughout the show. In one scene we see him during a lucid period when everything is fairly normal and we see another scene when things are going downhill and it’s a tragic scene. In the opening, he’s almost like Catherine talking to herself, seeing things through him, using him talking through him and she doesn’t have a lot of contact outside of him.”
Hannah Stoloff plays Catherine.
“The play follows her relationships, with coming to terms with seeing what her dad really means,” Stoloff said. “There is this two fold process where I think a lot of characters make this comparison between her intelligence and how that plays out with her dad’s intelligence, but also her struggle with her mental health that is playing out as her dad’s did. I think it’s her battle with trying to avoid falling into the same pitfalls that her dad fell into, while addressing what she’s really capable of as far her abilities go.”
The plot revolves around a ground-breaking mathematical proof that Hal has found among Robert’s papers and a dispute over who authored the proof. Was it Robert or Catherine? But it also focuses on Catherine’s unstable mental condition. Her sister Claire wants to protect her, take her away from Chicago and have Catherine relocate near her in New York and sell the family home in Chicago.
Catherine’s mental instability provides the play’s tension.
Duncan said it hasn’t been a problem handling the mental health issue with nuance and sensitivity.
“I think mostly everyone is competent with that,” she said. “Most have their own personal experiences with people they are close to draw on so their characters are exaggerated or caricatured. There’s a lot of genuine understanding. One of our actors is studying to be a therapist. There’s a lot of knowledge behind it.”
The studio theater seats about 40. The sets are minimal, a few chairs on a bare stage. The production is about character, dialogue, and interaction with the audience.
“One of the important things that the Second Stage does is interact with the audience in a unique way,” Duncan said. “You rely on the audience for suspending disbelief and understanding that we’re working with the space we have and the budget and resources we have sometimes. You just have to embellish with your imagination. It’s almost like its own form of audience participation that’s really unique.”
It can be daunting.
“Some people love being right in the action and close enough that they can touch the actors -- PLEASE don’t touch the actors, by the way,” Duncan said. “Sometimes I feel things are a little too close but that’s a subjective and personal thing.”
Stoloff said it has been a challenge performing in close quarters.
“It’s not necessarily an issue when you don’t know the audience members,” she said, but when I have my own friends and family in the audience it was definitely more of a challenge to not get distracted by a reaction.”
Other cast members are Sara Long as Claire, Emmett Mix as Hal, and Daniel Dye as Robert.
Proof premiered off-Broadway in May 2000 and moved to Broadway in October 2000 with Mary-Louise Parker as Catherine. A London production opened in May 2002 with Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead, directed by John Madden. Madden directed a film version in Paltrow in 2005.
Duncan and Stoloff offer different perspectives on what audiences should take away from seeing Proof.
“Some are coming to see their friends and I want them to walk away with an appreciation of what they can do in this little community theater spaces and that there are good things,” Duncan said. “Some are more familiar with theater and can relate to one of the character’s stories and learn something about themselves and how they can make a situation better. I think there are so many things people can get out of shows. Normally, I just want to build something that I’m getting something out of and the people involved get something out of and I think that would translate to audience and what they get out of it.”
Stoloff says that there is a positive message in Catherine’s determination to stand up for herself.
“If there was a major take for me, I find it to be that it’s a good and OK thing to stand up for yourself, even if you don’t really feel complete,” Stoloff said. “I think one of the things that Catherine struggles with a lot is that there are people in her life who are constantly not believing in her or are in disbelief of the things that she is capable of.”
Stoloff said Catherine struggles with the idea that she is incomplete and that something is wrong with her:
“The fact that you can still stand up for yourself, that you can still be this individual, and in the end, it’s on you."
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
"Proof" will be presented at 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 7-8, 14-15, and at 2 pm on Sunday, Feb. 9 and 16, at the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, 322 W. Ann Street. For tickets, call 734-971-2228 or visit a2ct.org.