Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2004
I hate to say this, but don’t go and see this production of Proof at the Ghent Playhouse. David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning play is a suspenseful drama broaching questions of genius and madness. No one involved with this production shows the slightest sign of either. This is not so much a production of the play as an evening of people standing on the stage rapidly reciting lines written by David Auburn.
I am going to keep this review short because I do not believe in going on and on, enumerating everything I perceived as wrong with this production. The people involved are good and intelligent folk who love the theatre and set out to mount this show with enthusiasm and a vision.
I am recommending that people not attend this production for several reasons. If I had not already seen a good production of this play, I would not have understood what it was about from watching John Trainor’s cast in action. I would have come away muttering, “That’s the kind of junk that wins Pulitzers these days?” And that is a false impression. For all its flaws, and it does have them, Proof is an intriguing play – one that should have you leaving the theatre arguing with your companion about who was telling the truth and who was sane and who was insane and can insanity be hereditary, or can genius, and do insanity and great genius really go hand in hand?
The other reason I recommend that you not see this production is that Proof is a hot commodity right now. This is the third production in as many months within easy driving distance from my house, and I know of many more local productions planned for the coming year. The film version, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Sir Anthony Hopkins, is due in theatres next month. Surely one of these efforts will get it right, and you should invest your time and money there because Proof is a play worth seeing.
There are only four characters in Proof – Catherine, her late father Robert, her older sister Claire, and her father’s former student Hal – and Sarah Stegemann, Grant Miller, Melissa Jagel and Jeffrey Borak are all woefully miscast. The key to making Proof work is having a strong actress in the role of Catherine, and Stegemann is merely an attractive presence. I didn’t believe that her father had just died, I didn’t believe she could have written that proof, and therefore I didn’t care. Miller cannot pass for 28. Jagel doesn’t project any of Claire’s nervous perfectionism.
Only Borak shows some signs of understanding the man he is portraying, and makes a decent attempt at embodying Robert’s madness in his final scene, but it is too little, too late.
Robert Bisson has designed and built an ugly little set that makes the small playing space at Ghent even smaller, to the point of claustrophobia. The actors barely have room to move, which you would think might encourage them to interact in a more intimate manner (after all, three of the characters in the play are blood relations) but it doesn’t. They stay antiseptically remote from each other in the little playpen of a back porch that Bisson has created. The porch railing literally forms a barrier between the actors and the audience. From where I was sitting when the actors sat down the top of the railing bisected their faces.
Also, there is a thermometer on the set stage left. This is just set dressing, but it informed me that the Ghent Playhouse remains at a constant 60 degrees Fahrenheit on a chilly November evening with a sparsely populated house. No problem except that there is a scene late in the play when we are told that it is January and it is 30 degrees and actors are shivering, and the thermometer continues to cheerfully read 60. Surely someone sitting out in the house during rehearsals could have picked up on this.
So stay home by the fire. Order the script of Proof from Amazon and read it. You’ll get a better sense of what Auburn had in mind than you will at the Ghent Playhouse.
Proof runs November 19-December 5, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. at the Ghent Playhouse, on Town Hall Road just off Rt. 66 next to the fire station. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 12 and up. Tickets are $15, $12 for Playhouse members. Call the box office at 518-392-6264 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004