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April 16, 2004

Strong production returns Proof

Since its opening on Broadway in 2000, David Auburn's Proof has practically looped the theater circuit. After debuting to rave reviews, and garnering both the Tony and Pulitzer for its author, the play became the hot new thing onstage. Hence, playhouses from Gloucester to the Golden State have all put on performances of this show in the last three years. The quality of these productions has varied, but what have remained intact are Auburn's gifts for wit, language, and the portrayal of complex human relationships. All of the hype of the last few years should culminate with Miramax's film version of the play, which will be released in theaters at the end of this year.

Until this past fall, the one place that the Proof parade had failed to spark excitement on its world tour was the place where it was most obligated to stop: Chicago. The film version of the play did much of its filming on location in Hyde Park back in October, making the University and its students movie stars. Now, the play survives on the Goodman Theatre stage, where it has received perhaps its most intriguing interpretation. Although Auburn never specified the ethnicity of his characters in his stage directions, every previous production that I am aware of has featured an all-white cast. That is, until now.

That Proof translates equally well with an all-black cast should come as no surprise. David Auburn is a graduate of the University, and he knows as well as we do the diversity that exists within the Hyde Park community and the school itself. There is no reason to assume that a brilliant but mad math professor and his equally conflicted daughter could not be anything but white. After all, the smart kids and eccentric professors here come in all colors, shapes and sizes; it just took director Chuck Smith to spell it out for us.

Smith moved to Chicago with his family in the early '50s, and he began seventh grade at a school on 53rd and Ingleside. He knew the University of Chicago simply as "the School"—the campus was part of his neighborhood, and the location where a friend's father worked. This familiarity with Hyde Park is readily apparent in the Goodman production, as the set—the back porch of a professor's house on Kenwood—is authentic to every last detail, including the stacked newspapers, the dying plants, and a Mr. G's Co-Op plastic bag tethered to the chain-link fence bordering the yard.

The familiarity of location intensifies when the play actually begins, and we are introduced (or rather reintroduced) to the distinctive language and characters. Catherine (Karen Aldridge) is the 25-year-old daughter of a University of Chicago professor. Her precocious math skills still remain, but she has recently been preoccupied with the care of her ailing father, Robert (Phillip Edward VanLear), who has just died as the play begins. Catherine's yuppie older sister Claire (Ora Jones) is flying in for the funeral and to get in Catherine's hair, while Hal (Dwain A. Perry), Robert's doting grad student, can't bear to part with the hundred-plus notebooks left in the house by Robert.

The world that Auburn presents is one of which we are all familiar: Brilliant, intense people missing various social cues, stumbling through normal standards of propriety, and remaining stubbornly proud of their nerdiness. In the first few scenes, we see Robert presenting a bottle of terrible champagne to Catherine on her birthday, admitting he is no vintner. Hal lurches out of the house at 1 a.m. on his way to a performance with his band of fellow dorks. On the morning of Claire's arrival, she is quickly out-dueled in a battle of wits with Catherine, who scoffs at her big sister's ignorance of hair's eternal demise, and the concept of organic chemicals.

Yes, these are wonderfully snobby U of C people, and both Auburn and Smith embrace them as only former Hyde Park residents could. The author and the director both realize the complexity in this oft-misunderstood section of academia: those who must counter their mental instability with their mental fortitude. Proof is ultimately not a story about people who are too smart for their own good, but rather about the difficulty that comes with that intellectual burden as one longs to forge relationships in spite of the trepidation created by the mental "machinery," as Robert calls it. Proof is essentially the story of a father figure and three people who must deal with his death in their own ways.

Overall, the four-person cast is excellent. Karen Aldridge tends to the more hyperactive side of her character. Her Catherine fears she might be sliding down the slippery slope to mental incapacity just like her father; her limbs twitch and flail with her frequent mood swings. Aldridge sometimes appears to be trying too hard. However, she reaches the damaged soul of Catherine, which is just looking for something to hang on to.

Ora Jones is the hyperbolic epitome of a comfortable Manhattanite; her Claire speaks of jojoba shampoo and gourmet coffee shops with equal dexterity. Phillip Edward VanLear is a lot of fun as the tough and tender Robert; he steals every scene he's in. Dwain A. Perry is a sensitive yet arrogant mathematician, humbled by the intellect of Catherine and her father. He is, perhaps, the coolest math grad student that you'll find on the U of C campus.

Proof speaks so well to us—Hyde Parkers and U of C students—because it is about us, and we understand all of its subtle references. However, the play has already proved its versatility in a number of productions in the last few years—it also speaks to those who have never even set foot in Chicago. Relationships take center stage, and Chuck Smith's soulful hometown productions reveal that Auburn's language communicates not only to numerous regions, but also through numerous ethnicities. This play belongs to Hyde Park, and it is comforting to see it treated with such dignity.