One difficulty community theater faces in the modern age is unprecedented media proliferation. We can access a century of cinema, six decades of television or even video of Broadway and equity productions anytime, anywhere on our laptops, tablets or phones.
So when our neighbors and friends chase their moonlit dreams onstage, they’re battling ratcheted expectations. Five decades back, they just had to be the best version of Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois their small theater had ever seen. Now they’re more apt to be compared to a galaxy of dramatic stars.
But when Fairhope’s Theatre 98 invited Artifice to a dress rehearsal for David Auburn’s “Proof,” they didn’t have to worry about that on this end. Though the 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning play was transformed into a 2005 film, the casting of a certain off-putting actress in the central role — let’s just call her Shmyneth Shmaltrow — kept Artifice from indulging. So I had fresh eyes.
What those eyes found on the Eastern Shore was a small cast who gave a generally fine performance. The lack of my utter satisfaction was more a result of the script, lofty prize aside.
For the unfamiliar, the play orbits Robert, a brilliant mathematician, and his even more gifted daughter, Catherine, who looks after the University of Chicago genius as his mental faculties unravel. His years spent in pursuit of revolutionary concepts regarding prime numbers have left Catherine with memories of her recently deceased father, his house and hundreds of theorem-filled notebooks.
It is quickly evident Catherine’s ponderous mood is squarely rooted in more than mortality. She’s afraid she inherited both her father’s brilliance and his instability.
When one of Robert’s young academic disciples asks to pore through his work, Catherine relents as she’s busy dealing with her more practical sister Claire, who has arrived for the funeral. Hal gets his hands on a notebook containing groundbreaking work and Catherine claims its authorship.
Catherine’s struggle for control — over her life, her memories, her work, her relationships — is the overarching drama.
Personally, Artifice feels Auburn’s tale lacks revelation. Director Joe Fuselli wrote in the program it’s not a story about math but about relationships. OK, that’s easy enough, but what about them?
Parents and children both worry about and love each other. Sure.
Siblings are often vastly different and fight. All right.
I found little novel or deeply philosophical within Auburn’s somewhat prosaic points. Perhaps my expectations were tainted by my own enthusiasm for science and related fields, for the truly awe-inspiring and overwhelming concepts that inhabit its every turn.
Maybe I’m just hypercritical. Far more learned and seasoned minds than mine found this play worthy of various lofty awards.
Other issues in Auburn’s script were merely annoying. Hal didn’t know a calendar date even though his band was scheduled to play a rare gig at a venue that night. No struggling musician — especially one with a penchant for numbers — forgets that.
When doubt as to Catherine’s ownership of the central theorem arises, a simple test eludes mention. Immediately have her jot down Arabic numerals and alphabets Greek and English without looking at the handwritten notebook then compare. Problem solved.
What worked best for me was the play’s humor, some of it mildly nerdy. Physicists particularly will chortle at the portrayal.
Auburn’s four-actor cast is perfect for the diminutive playhouse, named for the size audience it can accommodate. Though not entirely in the round, the seating surrounds the stage on three sides, and since “Proof” takes place in the entirety of Robert’s backyard the layout works well, as if the audience were neighbors peering over a fence.
Fuselli has done a fine job with his actors. Sarah David seemed to inhabit her character very well and displayed a physical ease that showed her comfort with Catherine.
Heather Delker was also good as the uptight Claire. The argument between her and Catherine in scene six seemed to bring out the best in both actors.
As Hal, Nick Youngblood was appropriately tentative in the early going but his sense of resignation and disappointment in scene three were the best notes he hit that night.
Timothy Guy portrayed Robert with a sense of twitchy nervousness that felt odd in the opening but as the play proceeded made more and more sense. By his last scene and the full emergence of his mental issues, it was beyond jarring but perfectly suited.
Altogether, I felt the sum of work from actors and director gave value to the adventure. They exceeded the playwright’s formula but maybe, like pi, I’m just a little irrational.
“Proof” continues Oct. 14-16 and Oct. 21-23. For tickets visit theatre98.org or call 251-928-4366.