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The Play's the Thing

Theater Review: Proof


Published July 23, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

The trouble with unforgettable performances is that they're, well, unforgettable. They're hard acts to follow, achievements that threaten to make all future renditions pale by comparison.

That's the challenge currently presenting itself to two Vermont theater companies. Lost Nation is doing David Auburn's Proof, which won Mary-Louise Parker the 2001 Tony for her riveting turn as Catherine, the troubled daughter of a mathematician. Unadilla is doing Chekhov's Uncle Vanya; last winter, the revelatory work of Simon Russell Beale as Vanya at the Brooklyn Academy of Music helped convince The New York Times he was "the best British actor of his generation."

So how do you top performances like those? You don't. The actors here won't make anyone forget Parker or Beale. But here's the good news: Kathleen Keenan and Tom Blachly do the roles justice -- and the productions in which they're featured do justice to two difficult but rewarding plays.

There are interesting similarities between Keenan and Parker. Both are quirky actresses whose quirks work to their advantage, particularly in playing a role like the enigmatic Catherine, who may be as loony and as brilliant as her loony, brilliant father. Parker seemed a little unlikely as the odd woman out -- her persona was a little too fundamentally sensible, her looks a little too healthy -- but the fascination in her work was that she always seemed to be holding something back. Her line readings were sneaky, halting, surprising, as if she'd just thought of the words that minute.

Keenan is more convincingly exhausted, clearly damaged, but her character tics -- flailing about histrionically, kicking a leg out behind her, standing up on tiptoes -- can seem more actressy than centered within the character.

Still, her histrionics echo the behavior of her father Robert (Mark E. Efinger), when he is at his most agitated, a parallel that illuminates the father-daughter bond more clearly than the New York production did. Director Lisa A. Tromovitch has fostered a strong sense of ensemble. You believe that Efinger, Keenan and Kate Sand-berg, who plays Catherine's sister Claire, are a family. You believe in the affection that develops between Catherine and her father's math protege, Hal, played with great energy and warmth by Steven Walters. And you believe in their mutual passion for the intellectual puzzles of mathematics and how it complicates their relationship with Robert.

Sandberg does an excellent job with a role that could easily be played as prissy and obnoxious. In subtle increments, she lets us see that layers of emotion and family history are behind her decision to come to Chicago and "fix" her sister's life -- and layers of love, jealousy and guilt at not having been around to help care for their father as he descended into mental illness. Claire is angry that she's the one who has to deal with the residue of genius: "You fucking mathematicians," she blurts out, "creating catastrophes that people like me come flying in to clear up."

Throughout the play, Auburn looks from several perspectives at the nature of genius and the line between inspiration and insanity. Efinger manages to convey both Robert's keen intellect and his bewilderment as he realizes his mind is betraying him. Keenan makes Catherine's struggle in this regard poignantly clear: She is confident in her own abilities, but she's tortured by the fear that they're an illusion. It's to both Auburn's and Keenan's credit that for a good part of the play we're not sure she isn't following her father's path to insanity.

Questions of sanity and trust lead to the play's central mystery, which surrounds the authorship of a mathematical proof. It wouldn't be right to reveal the nature of that mystery -- or of any of the other several surprises in the script -- except to say that it sets up one of the best Act One curtain lines of any contemporary play in recent memory (the line provoked audible gasps at Lost Nation). And that's part of the appeal of Proof: Its subject matter may sound a little arcane, but its basic elements are quite conventional -- not only a great curtain line, but a love story, a family drama, mystery, humor and four meaty roles for actors. No wonder it got the Pulitzer.

That said, it's irritating that Auburn never gets to the heart of the proof itself; each time a character is about to explain it, the scene stops. Unlike, for instance, Copenhagen or Angels in America, plays that take complicated arguments about relativity and race and make them dramatically viable, Auburn seems to feel he'll lose us if he gets too deep into actual math. He treats the audience the way the world treats Catherine: He underestimates our intelligence.

All the same, the fact that he dangles that proof so tantalizingly in the distance does echo a central theme of the play, which is that mathematicians love their field because of its mystery. In keeping with that theme, lighting and set designer David Ferguson suggests that Robert's house is literally haunted by math, with bits of formulas and equations hovering over and poking through the otherwise realistic Chicago back-yard setting.

But the attraction of mysteries is that they can eventually be solved. And even though we never get to hear the solution to the mathematical proof, the play itself is structured as a kind of proof -- jumping back and forth in time, picking up evidence here and there -- and its solution proves most satisfying.

There's something exquisitely right about seeing Uncle Vanya at Unadilla. The play is set on a farming estate in the Russian countryside; Unadilla's theater is a converted barn in the rolling hills of East Calais. The antique furnishings of the well-appointed sitting-room set seem right at home in the barn, and when characters refer to strolls through the estate's grounds the audience shares a frisson of recognition because they've just walked through fields and flower beds to get from the parking lot.

Most of the characters in Vanya are members of the same family, or spend so much time with each other that they might as well be. Many of the cast and crew at Unadilla are part of the clan whose patriarch, Bill Blachly, founded the theater in 1983 -- coincidentally opening his first season with Uncle Vanya. The familial closeness is augmented by the actual closeness of the audience to the stage -- the theater seats only 125.

This intimacy, along with a lively translation Blachly discovered at Canada's Stratford Festival, brings home the currency of Chekhov's dialogue. Astrov, an ecologically minded doctor played with brisk charm by Christopher Pratt, gives a paean to forests that would be apropos at a town meeting about the Circ Highway. As Maria, the aged matriarch deep into the latest political pamphlets, Sarah Payne is reminiscent of the kind of self-improvement-minded senior citizen you might expect to meet at a protest march in Burlington.

The subtle shifts in emotional temperature that occur so often in Chekhov gain immediacy when we feel we're almost in the same room with the characters. That's particularly true in scenes that trace the growing flirtation between Astrov and Elena (Ellen Blachly, daughter of Bill). She's a young beauty married to a much older man, a retired professor -- played with gusto by Clarke Jordan -- who inherited the estate from his first wife. The couple is visiting from Moscow; his daughter Sonya (Sara Silverstein) and brother-in-law Vanya (Tom Blachly, son of Bill) run the estate for him.

Sonya's mad about Astrov, Vanya adores Elena, but amidst all this unrequited love it's only the doctor and Elena who experience a mutual attraction, albeit an impossible one. The coolly elegant Blachly isn't quite the indolent sensualist suggested by the script, but she and Pratt find a playful, charged rhythm together that's fun to watch. And as Vanya, Tom Blachly has one of his best moments when he stumbles upon the two almost-lovers in a passionate kiss: Entering with roses for Elena, his features crumble from eagerness to resignation in seconds.

Tom Blachly's Vanya is, in fact, quite effective overall -- it's an unforced, funny, believable performance, suffused with a defeated irony. But he and the production as a whole succumb at times to a common Chekhov-ian trap. The characters' knowingness -- their awareness of the futility of life and their inability to shake it off -- can cast a pall over the proceedings if we don't see some of the driving passions underneath the expressions of boredom.

It's not until the play's desperate, and desperately comic, denouement that Blachly lets the stops out -- when in a fit of ineffectual rage Vanya gets himself a gun and starts shooting up the place. The revelation in the Donmar Warehouse production in Brooklyn was that the actors, in particular Beale, let those passions fly right from the start. His was a volatile, unpredictable Vanya; his expressions of passion for Elena were outbursts of unbridled feeling that made his descent into despair that much more dramatic.

Still, Bill Blachly realizes what many directors don't -- that Chekhov can be funny. He's helped his cast find a way into the humor of the play, whether it's in Robert Belenky's over-the-top clownishness as the family hanger-on Waffles or in barbed line readings like Sonya's catty reminder to the bored Elena that "There's plenty of work" to do on the estate if she were so inclined.

In his director's note, Blachly suggests that Chekhov's play is a kind of homage to work -- Vanya and Sonya as exemplars of ordinary persons whose labors will redeem the world. Even if you disagree with that interpretation, the quality of Unadilla's production is itself a tribute to the value of hard work, not just that of the performers but in the fine detailing of props (by Ann O'Brien) and costumes (by the multi-talented Ellen Blachly, who also painted the impressionistic garden backdrop). Like Lost Nation's Proof, Unadilla's Vanya is a thoroughly intelligent rendition of an important play. And good plays hold up -- whether or not the performance is definitive.

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