Theater / Film

Review: At Actors’ Playhouse, ‘Proof’ displays its undiminished power

Written By Christine Dolen
May 22, 2023 at 10:06 AM

Michael McKenzie as Robert and Jessica Sanford as Catherine have a complicated birthday celebration in “Proof” at Actors’ Playhouse. Photo by Alberto Romeu

David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Proof” has been produced a number of times by South Florida theaters since its Broadway debut in 2000. When the Coconut Grove Playhouse did it in 2002, Auburn himself directed the production.

Two major surprises help power the intricate drama, which is centered around a genius mathematician whose life and career were shattered by mental illness, and the daughter who fears she may have inherited his affliction along with his brilliance. Those shocks are part of the play’s enduring power, so we won’t reveal them here.

Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables has now taken on “Proof” in a strong new production in its upstairs Balcony Theatre. On opening night, you could tell that many theatergoers had never encountered the play before: When those two moments happened, they gasped, underlining the undiminished impact of this Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning drama.

Daniel Llaca as Hal reveals a notebook entry to Jessica Sanford’s Catherine in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Proof.” Photo by Alberto Romeu

Set on the deck of an old home near the University of Chicago, “Proof” skips back and forth in time as it assembles the pieces of a mysterious puzzle. Catherine (Jessica Sanford) grew up in the house, and though she left for a time to study math at Northwestern, she was pulled back into her role as fulltime caretaker for her delusional father Robert (Michael McKenzie).

Harold “Hal” Dobbs (Daniel Llaca), who had Robert as his doctoral adviser, has come over to comb through the many notebooks in Robert’s office, hoping that he’ll discover something to prove that during a recent nearly year-long period of lucidity, his mentor was doing important work.

Claire (Stephanie White), a successful currency analyst in New York, has paid the bills while Robert has been unable to work, leaving her younger sister to do the heavy lifting with their father 24/7. She has come back to Chicago with a proposal for Catherine: Why not move to Manhattan and start a new life?

Director David Arisco and the cast burrow into the characters’ conflicting motivations and complexities as the actors embody people in crisis.

(l-r): Jessica Sanford (left) and Stephanie White play very different sisters in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Proof.” Photo by Alberto Romeu

McKenzie’s cheery Robert is scattered, yes, but lovingly paternal toward Catherine until one chilling scene when he turns frightened and driven as it becomes clear that his disease has come back in force.

As Hal, Llaca represents superstar wannabes who believe that doing the kind of work it takes to become famous has to happen when a mathematician is in his 20s – and at 28, he feels that window closing. He’s genuinely attracted to Catherine, but the possibility of being associated with a colossally important discovery is revealed as his central motivation, and at one point he becomes Catherine’s bellowing inquisitor.

White’s brusque, know-it-all Claire is supposed to be an annoying contrast to her emotionally vulnerable sister, and oh does she succeed. Focused on her mission of persuading Catherine to move, she barely listens to anything her sister has to say. She roams over the deck describing her shiny New York life to the suffering Catherine, and before long, her hidden motivation becomes clear.

Jessica Sanford as Claire faces a crisis with Michael McKenzie as her father Robert in the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Proof.” Photo by Alberto Romeu

“Proof” revolves around Catherine, of course, and the part needs an actor whose quicksilver changes and emotional range draw the audience in, whether things are looking up or turning disastrous. Sanford is more than up to the challenge, delivering one of her finest performances. At 25, her Catherine is stubborn, vulnerable, caring, brilliant and hurting, having sacrificed so many possibilities for her father’s sake.

Because the play is being performed in the more intimate Balcony Theatre – the right space for a four-character play – Gene Seyffer’s set (with set dressing and props by Jodi Dellaventura) is necessarily more compact than it would have been had “Proof” been done on the far larger Mainstage. Though it looks more like a pale-blue cottage than a well-worn place where a University of Chicago faculty member would live, it’s pretty to look at for 2 ½ hours and provides all the levels and doors for the actors’ shifting configurations.

Eric Nelson’s lighting reveals the shift of the seasons and changes in emotions. Sound designer Alex Bonilla links the scenes with minimalist, alluring piano music. And costume designer Ellis Tillman uses clothing to communicate not just attention or indifference to style but, for Robert and Catherine, their shifting mental

Actors’ production of “Proof” is fine if not flawless. One scene in particular, when Robert is sitting on the deck wearing just a T-shirt and pants, writing like a man on fire even though the outside air is frostbite cold, is just not convincingly staged.

The play itself, now almost the age of its protagonist, has so much to say about genius (and, sometimes, its cost), caretaking, sacrifice, support, honesty and more. It contains the riches of the best dramas, its impact undiminished. All you have to do is go to Coral Gables and partake.

WHAT: “Proof” by David Auburn

WHERE: Actors’ Playhouse production at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through June 4

$40-$125 (10 percent discount for seniors and $15 student rush tickets at
weekday performances)

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