By Manning Harris
Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company is presenting David Auburn’s drama “Proof,” directed by Tess Malis Kincaid, through Nov. 20. “Proof,” which premiered in New York in 2000, won the theatre world’s triple crown: the Drama Desk Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Tony Award for Best Play.
When you do a play with those credentials, a theatre company should probably take the equivalent of the Hippocratic oath and say, “First do no harm.” It’s my pleasure to inform you not only that all is well, but that True Colors has done themselves proud.
“Proof” starts casually, on the front porch of a pleasant Chicago house (set and costumes designed by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay) where a young woman of 25 named Catherine (Fedna Jacquet) is having a little chat with her father, Robert (Gerard Catus), about what she’ll get them for supper that night (he does not want pasta or spaghetti).
But a tension creeps into their conversation, especially from Catherine. Her voice takes on a strident quality, seemingly out of nowhere. But that’s before we learn that Robert is a brilliant, genius-level retired mathematician and college professor. He recognizes that Catherine, who has dropped out of college, has inherited a great deal of his talent, and he scolds her a bit for her seeming lethargy (she sleeps until noon sometimes).
One other thing: Robert is dead. Yes, this conversation has been in Catherine’s imagination. In truth, Catherine is preparing to lay her father to rest, and she’s awaiting the arrival of her older sister, Claire (Tinashe Kajese-Bolden), from New York. Robert died after a long mental illness; his meaningful work in math, for which he is famous, was done when he was much younger.
So the question becomes twofold: How much of his genius did Catherine actually inherit; and did she also inherit the likelihood of mental illness? We learn that sister Claire, a practical sort, not only has plans to sell the house, but to take Catherine back to New York to live with her and her husband. Needless to say, these out-of-the-blue plans do not sit well with Catherine.
Also, a young man named Hal (Eric Mendenhall), a devoted former student of Robert’s, comes calling, wanting to see if Robert left any papers or proofs of interest around. Robert and Catherine start to develop a romantic interest in each other (this is shortly before Claire shows up). Then Robert, with Catherine’s aid, discovers a mathematical proof of profound importance; and he can find no errors in it.
I’m going to reveal a spoiler here, because it’s important; but if you don’t like spoilers, skip the next two paragraphs. Catherine says that she herself wrote the remarkable, game-changing proof. If this is true, both Hal and Claire have much difficulty in believing that Catherine could actually have done it. The proof seems to be written in Robert’s handwriting, but that’s not certain. Catherine is greatly perturbed that she has to prove that the proof is indeed hers.
The acting here is first rate; my only quibble is that Catherine seems too quick to get angry and then raise her powerful voice. Granted, she’s got some very valid reasons to be upset, but sometimes the essence of anger comes out very quietly. Ms. Jacquet has a lot of electricity as an actor—it’s hard not to watch her—but I think doling out her power more judiciously would be a cagey move.
Mr. Mendenhall is smooth and solid; nobody plays a decent, intelligent young man better than he. Ms. Kajese-Bolden’s Claire is almost annoyingly efficient; but how would you react if you suddenly discovered your sibling is a genius? And Mr. Catus, who fortunately appears again after that first scene, is masterful.
Director Tess Malis Kincaid, a much-acclaimed Atlanta actor, also directs with a fine and sure hand. Why am I not surprised?
By the way, that’s an awfully big house. You could run a 50-yard dash on that porch (almost). College professors must make more money than I thought they did. But then, Robert probably got the house back in the day.
True Colors is producing a fine production of a fascinating, award-winning American play.
For tickets and information, visit truecolorstheatre.org.