by Hugh Hunter
Allens Lane Theater is currently running “Proof,” written by David Auburn and directed by Sarah Mitteldorf. “Proof” is a non-linear play that shifts back and forth between past and present.
Auburn won the Pulitzer Prize for this play in 2001. I have seen it many times, but I have never seen a production with an all-female cast. I had trouble wrapping my head around it, and it changed my experience of the play.
“Proof” is Catherine’s play (Jess Brownell). She is gifted but has to drop out of college to care for her mentally ill father. Catherine has many facets. She is depressed but also fearful that she will inherit her father’s illness along with his mathematical genius. And all of Catherine’s relationships are troubled.
The opening scene knocked me out of my seat. In a set-up that I took to be Catherine’s dream state, she talks to her father, Robert (Samantha Simpson). At first it was impossible for me to see this statuesque, young blond as an old man near death.
“Proof” then segues to the gender-bender present where Catherine talks to fellow mathematician, Hal (Sarah Heddins). Slender with short hair, Hal is a little easier to take as a man. He also has a distinct persona, visibly anxious about where he stands with Catherine.
I felt a palpable relief when two actual women then share the stage. Sister Claire (Sharon Eyster) travels from Manhattan to convince Catherine to come live with her. They are well paired. Claire is both diplomatic and manipulative while Catherine fends her off with sardonic quips. You suspect this will not end well.
“Proof” is set in a backyard porch in Chicago, and BleakHouse Productions with Scott Newport create a pleasing set. I loved the shifting lights (light design Scott Cannon) and the moody piano music during scene changes (sound design Kim Pelle).
Somehow, during Act Two I got used to the all-female cast and became engrossed in the action. What will happen with Robert? Who will “win” Catherine, Hal or Claire or neither one? In fact, I found the final scene between Robert and Catherine enormously moving.
Catherine is not an easy role. I once saw a production so focused on her depression that Catherine was constantly snappish, and I started to hate her. Catherine has many sides; she can also be fun-loving and affectionate. An actress has to seize such moments and Jess Brownell gets it right.
What stands out in the Allens Lane show is Catherine’s struggle to be a woman in a man’s world. She talks about a woman genius mathematician, Sophie Germain, in the 18th century who had to pretend to be a man. Only in this production did those lines jump out at me, and maybe the all-female cast had something to do with it.
Allens Lane is located at Allens Lane near McCallum Street. “Proof” will run through Oct 11. Reservations available at 215-248-0546.