Red Barn Studio
1122 S. Third St.
(910) 762 – 0955
Wed.-Sun., through 11/13, 8 p.m. or Sun matinees, 3 p.m.
The success of Red Barn Studio’s latest play, “Proof,” by David Auburn, is all in the details. In fact, the minutia carry almost every production here to the highest caliber of local drama. “Proof” excites with beautifully, authentically crafted set design, even down to the birdseed in the feeders, to the hypnotic jazz music playing between each scene change, to the nuance-filled performances of its cast.
The 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning ”Proof” follows a family of mathematicians, whose patriarch suffers from insanity, which oftentimes overshadows his genius as a revered University of Chicago professor. His daughter, Catherine, also inhabits an innate talent to wrangle numbers, algorithms and formulas, yet has the larger task of caring for her sick father. Catherine’s older sister, Claire, takes on the matriarch role since their mother died years earlier. She often treats Catherine like a teenager, berating her with questions and “worries.”
From the onset of the play, the audience gets swooned by the story, which opens in an omniscient scene with Catherine and her father, Robert, on the front porch of their home, celebrating her 25th birthday. From here the play vacillates between real-time and flashbacks, and onlookers understand the demons surrounding the family thanks to a culmination of characteristics played among the cast: distant emotions, “what-could’ve-been” scenarios, pent-up frustrations and newfound circumstances.
Isabel Heblich as Catherine gives a coolness to her character that teeters between empathy, apathy and emotional instability. Whether her character is invested in life or overshadowed by its heavy weight never remains clear. A see-saw encapsulates her mental state, one minute elated by the idea of her contributions to math only to be mauled by others’ acceptance of her work. Heblich breathes life into Catherine’s character by showing loyalty to her father, bratty rebellion to her sister and wavering adoration to her love prospect, Hal (Adam Poole). Again, her credibility lies in every off-side eye roll or natural grace of movement, whether lifting her hair in a bun while arguing with her dad or flipping through a magazine to avoid a conversation with her sister. If anything, Heblich’s coolness and often immature arguments need more appearance in the play. When she’s “level headed,” it’s just not as interesting.
Audra Glyn Smith as Catherine’s sister, Claire, remains a favorite of the cast. She may seem dislikable but only because she’s so believable as a caring albeit nagging sister with ulterior motives. Smith evokes the “put-together” link of the family to a “T”—dealing with numbers but only in their conclusive, definitive way of existence (after all, she’s a financial analyst). She’s not one to creatively discover why a number is prime, she’s only there to carry out its end goal. That in essence sums up her role in the family: She doesn’t help with the mess, only comes to “clean it up.” Smith makes Claire’s disconnect clear with venomous pomposity, down to her yuppie suits and designer pajamas. She plays the role as if her NYC reality is the only one that exists, regardless of what’s playing out in front of her. Smith offers an insensitivity to her character but not without clear value: Down deep, it’s obvious her intentions remain loving.
Adam Poole as Catherine’s love interest, Hal, and Robert’s former student, doesn’t bring as much nuance to his character as the others. Yet, he has a spastic energy that’s often endearing, as he fumbles over actions and words. Though it wasn’t entirely convincing that Catherine and he had a spark, his necessity to the plot is clear: He helps bring belief back to Catherine’s otherwise questionable existence. It would have been nice to see more “nerdiness” from the mathematician’s character; he came across much more hip than what the dialogue portrays, especially when referencing songs about the imaginary “i.” But who’s to say all mathematicians are Dilberts, any how?
Steve Bakunas plays Robert, Catherine’s father, with unrelenting understanding of the material. At first, his character doesn’t come across as “crazy.” He seems more comedic, referring to himself as a patient in a “bughouse” or throwing lovely vulgarities out in normal speech. His casualty is likable, respectable and makes up someone with whom many of us have encountered on a daily basis. Bakunas doesn’t pull off “mad genius” as one may suspect of the role, but when he goes into full-on insane mode, the transformation pulls in the gravitas of the situation. Bakunas flows into Robert without force.
Still, the best role Bakunas maintains in the production comes in his handy work directing the actors (his wife, Linda Lavin, directed his role in the play), as well as stage-designing, along with the help of Shane Fernando. Altogether, each element choreographed a plot of twists and turns that comfortably dance a solid waltz. The set simply astounds upon first and last glance: A full bird feeder during the closing of the first act and an empty one at the beginning of the second effortlessly evokes a change in timeline. The junk pushed underneath the porch lets the audience in on the unkempt appeal of the home before it’s known that it’s dilapidating. The lighting direction by Jeff Loy offers the sunlight rising from the east, with bright yellow fury, and the moonlight’s intoxicating glow with blue overtones. Bravo on all fronts for such thoughtful, smart details. If anything, “Proof” proves a $25 ticket worth its weight in numbers—prime or otherwise.