MIDVALE — Proof was originally produced on Broadway in 2001 and went on to win multiple Tony awards, including Best Play, and was recognized with the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play starred a string of famous actors during its run including Mary-Louise Parker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anne Heche, and Neil Patrick Harris, and featured Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins, and Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2005 film adaptation.
The play focuses on Catherine as she wrestles with mathematical brilliance and potential mental illness, both of which she inherits from her recently deceased father Robert, a former professor of mathematics and recognized genius in the field. As she recovers from years of exhausting caretaking, one of her father’s former students recovers a ground-breaking mathematical proof from Robert’s office, which authorship Catherine struggle to prove. Through Catherine’s journey, Proof explores trust, uncertainty, and the slim differentiation between genius and madness. While the play is a certainly dramatic, it is laced with careful humor that finely illustrates the weight and depth of the script.
Proof is a perfect choice for Pinnacle Acting Company who, according to their mission statement, is “dedicated to ensemble collaboration and artistic freedom.” As such, the company has produced an impressive range of shows that are somewhat unusual in Utah, providing local audiences with important exposure to beautiful, award-winning material that goes basically ignored by most other successful venues.
Melanie Nelson (Catherine) and Ron Frederickson (Robert) establish an immediate bond from the opening scene that typifies the frustrations of a father and daughter grappling to reconcile the jealousy and respect of their similar gifts and foibles. They are each hardened by life and somewhat disabled by scientific reasoning, even in a relaxed setting. The “flashback” scene in Act II is particularly touching as Frederickson subtlety reveals Robert’s descent into madness and Nelson quietly accepts the heartbreaking reality of his condition. Nelson especially shines in her pacing and delivery of contemporary play writing, which is at once conversational and specific.
Nelson’s sympathetic portrayal of impending mental illness is nicely offset by Holly Fowers as Catherine’s sister, Claire. She nicely juxtaposes an over-sensitivity in her compassion for Catherine with a distinctly insensitive reaction to her sister’s talent. Stein Erickson’s Hal is likeable and kind. His presence nicely provides relief for the cast and audience alike from emotional and familial tension.
Having worked with the play’s Tony Award-winning director, Jared Larkin’s direction of Proof is simple and allows the beautiful script to remain the focus of the production. While the Midvale Performing Arts Center itself is an apparent factor in the limitations of the technical design, the complexities of intelligence, insanity, and human relationships explored in the script are highlighted without a complex set or too many props. Larkin approaches the script with delicacy but not fragility, encouraging brave performances that make up for an unglamorous theatrical space.
In general, other theater companies in Utah would do well to take a page from Pinnacle Acting Company’s book in offering under-produced (and perhaps under-appreciated?) theatre works in Utah. Proof is evidence that contemporary drama should remain approachable and relevant locally.