BWW Reviews: 'Proof' at Tennessee Repertory Theatre

By: Feb. 08, 2010
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Rene Dunshee Copeland is, perhaps, the best stage director in Nashville (competing with her husband, Scot Copeland, the heart and soul of Nashville Children's Theatre, for claim to the imagined title), having brought some of the most memorable works to local stages during her career . And with Tennessee Repertory Theatre (where she is producing artistic director) celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season this year, she has gone for broke, helming all four shows included in the silver season.

With Steel Magnolias and A Christmas Story already under her belt, for both of which she gained justified critical acclaim, she has added David Auburn's Proof to her resume. The result? Yet another sublimely mounted production to complement the ever-growing list of her successes.

Of course, every director is only as good as his or her latest show and with each subsequent production, Copeland proves herself worthy of any theatrical challenge. Her unerring eye for casting ensures that each show is superbly acted and her critical eye makes certain that every show is presented in a creative and imaginative manner. With her penchant for quality and her attention to detail, a Rene Copeland-directed show is certain to deliver more than an audience expects, thus ensuring that Tennessee Rep will remain an artistic leader both regionally and nationally.

In Proof, playwright Auburn focuses on Catherine, the daughter of Robert, a University of Chicago professor and a mathematician of much notoriety, who has recently died after a long battle with mental illness. Following Robert's death, one of his students - Hal - uncovers a proof about prime numbers among Robert's papers; the new proof, certain to shift mathematical paradigms when it is published, is of unclear and uncertain authorship. While it appears written in Robert's labored handwriting, Catherine claims ownership and the ensuing debate provides much of the conflict in the play.

Clearly, Auburn's play is intriguing and its consideration of Catherine's place in the male-dominated world of mathematics is illuminating, what is most confounding about the play is the fact that we never hear what the "proof" in Proof is really all about. Perhaps it would be over our heads, but couldn't the playwright have trusted his own writing skills to give his audience a more edifying experience? At play's end, when Catherine and Hal settle down to discuss the proof in question, the lights fade and the music swells. Sure, it's a lovely way to end the play, but audiences are certainly hoping for more.

With Proof, chief among Copeland's winning elements is her talented, capable cast of actors. Anna Felix makes her Tennessee Rep debut as Catherine, the 25-year-old daughter of a mathematical genius gone mad in his later years, delivering a performance that is elegantly layered and as genuine as any we've seen. There is not a false note to be found in Felix's portrayal of Catherine, with every line delivered effortlessly and realistically. Felix is at once charming and off-putting as she betrays Catherine's fears that she may succumb to the same madness that enveloped her genius father, rendering him unable to function in the world he so loved.

As Hal, Robert's Ph.D. Candidate student struggling to make his own way in the competitive world of top-flight university mathematicians, Eric D. Pasto-Crosby gives a finely tuned performance. Pasto-Crosby very ably combines boyish charm with the man's ambitions to create a memorable characterization that matches Felix's in intensity and sure-footed delivery. Their budding romantic relationship notwithstanding it is their shared love for mathematics that is most obviously felt.

Chip Arnold, cast as Robert, conveys a very real sense of paternal concern and patriarchal superiority in the face of his character's encroaching madness. His delivery of his lines is impeccable and he displays a sense of timing that his younger co-stars should study for future reference. Although some of Arnold's choices at first seem rather arch, they somehow add to his character's dramatic descent into madness.

But the true revelation of this cast may well be Erin Whited who, in real life, is probably one of the sweetest, nicest people on this earth. Quite simply, that cannot be said of her character - Claire, Catherine's over-protective older sister. Whited's Claire is a brittle, career-driven woman who has always felt out of place in her own family, and her arrival for her father's funeral unleashes her sense of responsibility and her overbearing ways threaten to upend Catherine's fragile equilibirium. Whited's performance is noteworthy for its lack of staginess; even with her character's obvious shortcomings, the actress somehow makes her sympathetic, thoroughly engaging the audience in her persona.

As is expected with Tennessee Rep productions, the design aesthetic found in Proof is exceptional: Gary Hoff's gorgeously rendered set fully realizes the backporch and yard of a professor's University of Chicago neighborhood home as described by Auburn in his script, thus providing the cast a well-conceived arena in which to present the play. Karen Palin's exquisite lighting design artfully creates a sense of time and place in which the play's action occurs. And TrisH Clark's costumes are perfect for the play's four characters, never looking like costumes at all, but merely the clothes worn by Catherine, Hal, Claire and Robert. Finally, credit goes to Copeland and Tennessee Rep technical director Andrew Bevaqua for their sound design and for the music that evocatively frames the play's action.

- Proof. By David Auburn. Directed by Rene Dunshee Copeland. Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre at the Andrew Johnson Theatre at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through February 20. For details, visit the company's website at www.TennesseeRep.org.

Chip Arnold as Robert In Proof, photographed by Susan Adcox


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