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'Proof' Proves Rewarding

Play probes issues of intelligence, instability and heredity.

Firebelly, a small professional theater company that specializes in finding meaty parts for young adults to sink their teeth into, found a gem with its latest production, David Auburn's warmly human drama "Proof" which plays in the small black box Theater On The Run through Nov. 19.

The play was the first major work by David Auburn and it earned him both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000. It has been produced a few times in our region, and each time it has been a satisfying evening of theater for the same reason that this new production is so rewarding: The script itself is so strong that it seems to draw the best from the people staging it.

In Firebelly's case, those people are director Ali Miller and her cast of four — three of whom are young professionals and one, playing the father figure, manages a stage persona that is probably older than he really is.

Katy Carkuff plays the 25-year old daughter of a math genius. She has dropped out of college to take care of him as he has developed a debilitating mental instability. She seems to have inherited his intelligence and his gift for mathematics. Has she also inherited his tendency to mental instability?

Carkuff communicates the underlying tensions in her character without being overly obvious, treating the combination of good humor and the exasperation written into the part with intelligence and flair.

Don Kenefick plays the father who alternates between fear of the consequences of his instability and pride and pleasure over his daughter. The two of them form a fine bond in their scenes together.

Another very attractive character is a student of the father's in the Math Department at the University of Chicago who is attracted to the daughter. Daniel Eichner gives the part a charm and youthful energy that makes the affection both the father and the daughter come to have for him entirely believable.

THE HARDEST PART to pull off in the four-character play is that of another daughter who had moved away from Chicago before her father began to have difficulties. She had provided financial support but had not interrupted her life in New York to help out personally. If the part is overplayed, rather than seeming to be a real person it becomes too obviously a dramatic tool of the author's to get his plot going. K. Clare Johnson handles this demanding role nicely.

Actually, it is a mark of director Ali Miller's approach that all four actors avoid excesses and allow the strength of the play itself to shine through, and this is nowhere as apparent as in the least sympathetic role. There is an honesty to all the performances that works very well indeed.

All of the action takes place on one set -- the back porch of the family home near the campus of the University of Chicago. Miller designed the set as well, using simply a section of stake fencing, a few steps up to a deck and some patio furniture. Nicely lit by Andrew Griffin, the environment is well established without drawing too much attention.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.