An eighteen year old play, "Proof" by David Auburn, is torching the soul of theater-goers at Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington,Vermont. This Pulitzer Prize winning play deals with the concept of human legacy, of one generation inheriting the best and the worst of the previous generation. I'm not talking teeth, here, or hair color, but of mental capacities. Is a predilection for mathematics, for example, something that can be genetically passed down, and if so, can a sense of madness be inherited as well? For Robert and Catherine, a father and daughter whose resemblance is sharply marked, is there any genuine proof of this genetic instability?
Catherine has cared for her father in Chicago for years, while her sister Claire has moved on to live a different sort of life elsewhere, in New York City. Robert is a brilliant man who has struggled for years to provide proof of mathematical theory that has perturbed mathematicians forever but his mental instability has diminished his possibility of ever credibly communicating his theories. Encouraged to follow in his footsteps, Catherine has undertaken the task and there exists, now, a notebook with a proof like no other. Discovered by Hal, a student of Robert's, this notebook becomes the sticking point in both his own relationship with Catherine, and hers with her now dead father. Her estranged sister, Claire, who has paid for much of Catherine's education and undertaken the bills of support for both her father and sister, wants Catherine to divest herself of all things in her past and start life anew in New York.
In the production in Vermont, clarity is as much the issue as madness and those two elements are poles apart. Claire and Catherine cannot discover the truths of their interaction over the years without both of them understanding who and what the other one is. Hal is without options as he exercises his own sense of inheritance. Robert, with his sanity intact, is dead, a memory conjured up when needed, more sound in Catherine's mind than he was in her lifetime. And it all takes place on a backyard deck designed by Wm. John Aupperlee under the sensitive lighting designed by David C. Groupé.
Richard Howe is excellent as Robert. Surer than in other recent performances, Howe presents a solid man, whose words have impact and resonance. Robert's love for his daughter is vivid and clear and his admiration for her possibilities makes it clear that he sees in her what he knows in himself.
Talley Gale's Catherine is a sure-footed, kooky but kind young woman whose need for identity is straightforward and clear. The hereditary styles of Gale and Howe are wonderfully realized by the two actors, probably as much due to fine work by director Eric Peterson as to their own excellent abilities. She is an agile woman, a pretty woman, a woman who remains her own individual while portraying the object of lineage that so requires resemblance. It is a wonderful multi-layered portrait of a young genius who's afraid of being a shadow instead of an individual. As she takes a stand at the end of Act One, a moment of assertiveness hangs in the air as a note of desperation. I couldn't have liked it more.
Claire is played by Halley Cianfarini who gives the very clear impression that she believes her sister may have inherited their father's madness, but not his genius. Using intonation as a marker, she quickly becomes the villain of the piece, though her villainy is less Disney and more Freud. Never exactly subtle, Cianfarini uses the impact of consideration as a weapon of destruction as she tries to placate her sister's grief at the loss of a father and the inheritance of his mantle of lunacy.
The outsider whose need for discovery through adulation, Hal, is played by Ethan Botwick with an attenuated sexuality that rings true. He is a good match for Gale in the love scenes as well as in the plot moments concerning the "proof." He is fine in his refusal to believe in her abilities and later he matches that fervor in his reversal of belief. Hal, who can seem more devious and personally driven, emerges as the accidental hero of the play, replacing the stricken Robert in that role in his daughter's life.
I really liked this production. Eric Peterson has found the small moments and emotional changes in the script that elevate it from a minor melodrama into something much finer. Lucky theater-goers in Bennington will find a production of this play that justifies its awards, and that is really something to see.
Proof plays at Oldcastle Theatre, 331 Main Street, Benington, VT, through September 9. For information and tickets go on line to oldcastletheatre.org or call the box office at 802-447-0564.