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Proof is in the Acting at TheatreWorks!

Theater review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Feb 17th, 2018

Anna Fagan and Daniel Basiletti

David Auburn’s Proof (2000) ran for two-and-a-half years on Broadway, winning the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. At New Milford’s TheatreWorks the acting and direction by Frank Arcaro rivals the Broadway production. In two acts, each with four scenes, on a single, magnificent set, the pacing, gestures, and blocking appear so natural that they appear to be invisible, until one thinks about what has happened.

Proof paints the dilemma of mathematicians questing after sublime truth rooted in economy and elegance. Set on a porch of an old house, this porch becomes a window on the universe of possibility. Two flashbacks offer tantalizing suspense that enhances the present. Death and the infinity of numbers haunt a quest in the realm of proof theory, which represents proofs as formal mathematical objects, facilitating their analysis by mathematical techniques. (Proofs are typically presented as inductively-defined data structures such as plain lists, boxed lists, or trees, which are constructed according to the axioms and rules of inference of the logical system.) As such, proof theory is syntactic in nature, in contrast to model theory, which is semantic in nature, as this play is. (The mathematical aspect receives merely glancing reference: this play is about the emotions of characters, not ideas.)

The play adroitly vacillates on which character has the sensible view on the challenges they confront. The continual reversal of perspective endows the drama with supple, see-saw suspense. A few good jokes enliven conversation with requisite comic relief. Each of the eight scenes remain taut in their ambiguity as to whether the play is a tragedy or comedy, but this being America, it is, of course, the latter. Yet the happy ending is not easily earned. 

Anna Fagan as Catherine, the unstable mathematician who possesses astonishing glimmers of genius, seamlessly hits the manic high notes as well as the dour growling of her alienated disinterest in the ordinary world wherein we dwell. While the plot of the play hangs on a clothesline of mathematics, the play features memorable poetic monologues as the action and dialog offer a snaking, bending river of perception: is Catherine crazy or are the other characters merely oblivious to her brilliance?

Daniel Basiletti as Catherine’s nerdy admirer delivers a solid performance in a geeky role that is redeemed by charm and authenticity. Carey Van Hollen as Catherine’s older, domineering sister exudes her superior narcissism with appropriate sophistication and middle-class, sensible obtuseness. Viv Berger as Catherine’s eccentric father possesses the magic of momentary inspired poetry and mad rages at the doorstep of delusion.

The set lighting is brilliant, yet it is the ensemble acting that creates the electricity in this marvelous production. In the end Proof is more about magic and love than the frail abstractions that obsess the characters.

There is a reason why TheatreWorks in New Milford has won Connecticut Magazine’s award for Best Playhouse in the state for 2017. The evidence is in accomplished acting and superior direction. On opening night this performance received a standing ovation. Proof runs weekends through March 10. For tickets call 860-350-6863.