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Review of "Proof"

 

And let theater’s ‘Proof’ equal excellence

 

By LARRY PARNASS, Staff Writer

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Tuesday, August 5, 2003 -- NORTHAMPTON - The sniff test didn't go to college, but it beats brainier measures. Which are you going to trust, after all: memory of when you bought that milk, or the way it smells?

 

There is a sniff test for theater. "Proof" - one of the finest productions ever staged by New Century Theatre - sailed through it at last Thursday's opening night.

 

This is a family story without a whiff of contrivance. Director Jack Neary's production of the prize-winning drama about mathematics and mental illness - set in a leafy back yard in Chicago - looks and smells like life, not a well-meaning dilution of it.

 

Yes, stage productions should pass the sniff test as a matter of course. They don't. It is worth proselytizing for those that do.

 

Audiences are leaving the theater convinced by this "Proof." The production is the latest evidence that New Century Theatre stands in the company of the best regional theaters in the country. I feel duty-bound to warn people that it runs only through Sunday. See it or be sorry.

 

Tonight offers a special feature - a post-show "talkback" with members of the cast. For the price of admission, tonight's audience gets a backstage look at the making of "Proof."

 

The Manhattan Theatre Club recognized the brilliance of playwright David Auburn's story at a reading in 2000. "Proof" won a slew of awards on Broadway and became one of American theater's success stories. It is a winning work because it uses honestly drawn characters to tell the story of a common crisis - a parent's illness and death - within one unusual family.

 

Rather than send her mentally ill father off to a facility, daughter Catherine (Nicole Sypher) stays home to care for him. Catherine is one of the most sought-after roles for young female stage actors today, for Auburn makes her expose everything. Catherine isn't just a sister or a daughter, she is free will itself rubbed raw by her relations.

 

Catherine is what you find if you search the universe for intelligent life, and screen out ego, posturing and artifice. Every dent in her has been hammered in by the stop-and-start life audiences become fortunate enough to witness.

 

Sypher, an experienced actor making her New Century debut, simply nails the role.

 

This actor's heart beats out unmistakable rhythms - a tribute to the fallen genius that is her father; a war summons to her myopic sister; a halting love song to a nerdy suitor; and, above all, a metronomic anthem to her own emotional and intellectual independence.

 

While only in her early 20s, Catherine is at the age when a mathematician's powers have been known to peak. She watched that be so in the case of her father Robert (Steve Brady), a legendary University of Chicago professor. Age has weakened not only Robert's professional edge, but his sanity.

 

On this, "Proof" shares themes with Sylvia Nasar's book (and the movie) "A Beautiful Mind," about Princeton mathematician John Nash. While Brady does an exemplary job making father Robert's struggle transparent, it falls to Sypher to portray how his illness attacked not only his life and career but his family.

 

Though father and daughter talk a little math, this is a play more about emotion than ideas.

 

And it plays out not in themes but as feet-in-the-mud moments: when sister Claire (Cate Damon) arrives from New York City to try to tidy things up in the home she preferred to steer from afar; or when a young mathematician named Hal (Patrick Tangredi) comes to search the professor's notebooks for an undiscovered jewel.

 

He finds that jewel, then must establish whether his mentor wrote it in an unexpected run of clarity - or whether the author is someone else.

 

In anger, Catherine makes both Hal and Claire wither. In sorrow, she folds up into herself, disappearing like some sleight of hand beyond computation.

 

Damon uses grace and intelligence to create a Claire who wants more than anything else to manage her way through clutter. To Claire, Catherine is herself clutter, as she rattles around the back porch, drinking an abysmal bottle of Great Lakes champagne to mark her birthday and getting into a shoving match with cops.

 

Claire smoothes things over the next morning with the police and admonishes Catherine for not being able to do the same. "Well, people are nicer to you," Catherine says in a retort. In two too-short hours, we see the gulf between these sisters. Claire would like Catherine to, well, lighten up.

 

"This fun thing," she tells Claire severely, "is really not where my focus is."

 

They scramble, lose ground and try not to give up on each other.

 

Tangredi soars as Hal, the earnest young mathematician sentenced to a life of mediocre ideas. On opening night, Tangredi played Hal's tics and nerves without letting him become a caricature. In fact, the play overhauls preconceptions about math geeks. Claire finds out the hard way she can't keep up with them, drinking-wise, at a party.

 

To make the setting entirely convincing, the company invested in building the rear of a two-story house, complete with porch, designed by Daniel D. Rist. It elevates the realism wonderfully. It is to that porch that Claire staggers the morning after the party, her head throbbing.

 

Those close to Catherine can never be sure how they'll fare with her. When backed into a corner, Catherine emerges armed with truth and a ferocious ability to express it.

 

"Proof" glows with expectancy, for Catherine seems capable of everything all at once, from a Nobelist's trip to Oslo to wretched personal defeat. She may own a beautiful mind, but it's her cursed life that enchants.

 

"Proof" continues through Sunday in the auditorium of Northampton High School. Tickets are $20, or $18 for seniors. Call the box office at 587-3933.