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Proof | Alton Little Theater

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The production a has so much going for it—fabulous actors, beautiful set, excellent direction—that if you fail to make it to the Alton Little Theater, you’ll have only yourself to blame.


by David Auburn
Alton Little Theater
Directed by Barry Thornell
Through January 29, 2006

To continue my driving adventures into Illinois ... just so you know, the street in Alton, Ill., which Yahoo! maps calls “North 21st,” and onto which one has to turn to get to the Alton Little Theater, has been cleverly renamed “College.” And you won’t want to be late, as I unfortunately was, for Alton Little Theater’s wonderful production of David Auburn’s award-winning play, Proof.

The show focuses on Catherine (played by Shannon McFarlane), the daughter of a brilliant mathematician who, in his later years, lost not only his math skills but also the ability to care for himself. Catherine returns home from college, where she had been studying math, to care for her father, rather than institutionalize him, as her sister would have done.

Catherine’s father, Robert (Randy Hoven), has already died when the play begins, though he still plays a big role in Catherine’s life—a role larger than sanity allows, perhaps. But Catherine is under quite a bit of pressure. She has to deal with her father’s death; the interest of one of his students, Hal (Jonathan Elkins), in the notebooks her father kept during his later years; and the return of her financially successful sister, Claire (Alison Neace), home from New York for the funeral.

In the wake of a party that Claire hosts after the funeral at the Chicago home, Catherine and Hal grow close, and finally Catherine reveals a big secret. She has a proof—a very important mathematical proof. But the handwriting looks suspiciously like her father’s, and after all, she only took a few college math classes. So Hal and Claire question her honesty, wondering if she is trying to pass her father’s work off as her own.

The drama took place on the back porch of Robert’s house, a set designed by Elkins. The two-story stone creation was decorated with metal yard ornaments (a large bird and a sun), a woodburning stove, and French doors. Up close, the façade was evident: paint lines on the tree at the edge of the “yard,” the black walls of the wings. But from a distance, it looked as if someone had constructed stadium seating around the back of an actual house. The details were artful, such as grubby panes of glass in the French doors and, as a friend put it, “great placement of leaves.” It may sound silly, but the leaves looked as if they had blown in off the street. Other details, such as badly weathered wood deck chairs, a porch swing, and a string of painted wood fish hanging on the house, all contributed to the outdoorsy effect. The bright lighting was reminiscent of the sun, illuminating the front row of the audience as well as the stage.

In the beginning of the first act, McFarlane’s Catherine came across a bit overly loud and coarse, but as the production moved on, she mellowed into the right balance of tomboy and young woman. Throughout, she cursed like a sailor and smiled like a little kid, growing on Hal and the audience. Neace went through a similar transformation as Claire, coming on a little too artificially sweet, but quickly balancing her performance out into a perfectly dislikable, pretty, condescending New Yorker.

As Hal, Elkins was commanding from the moment he stepped onstage. The nerdy mathematician, mildly goofy and completely likeable, was expertly portrayed through subtle body movements and facial expressions, touches that went well beyond the lines of the play; Elkins played geeky-ness, drunkenness, and humaneness, all with outstanding control and great skill.

Hoven, who happens to be a mathematician in real life, gave life to Robert, especially in the moving scene that showed how pervasive his mental illness had become.

Thornell’s direction was smooth; the actors appeared comfortable and natural, moving about the stage realistic, convincing ways. Only once did the action seem unwarranted by the emotion generated—in an early scene in which Hal and Catherine are touching, it seemed forced and unnatural, given the personalities they portrayed.

But the few minor flaws in this production of Proof were so negligible as to barely be worthy of mention, except for the sake of avoiding an “I loved this play!” review.

The production a has so much going for it—fabulous actors, beautiful set, excellent direction—that if you fail to make it to the Alton Little Theater, especially since you’ve been warned about the directions, you’ll have only yourself to blame. You’ll be missing, as Catherine might put it, one kick-ass production of Proof.

Alton Little Theater presents David Auburn’s Proof through January 29 at the Alton Little Theater (2450 N. Henry, Alton, Ill.). Showtimes are at 8 p.m. nightly except for a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.; no performances on Monday. Tickets are $12 for general admission, $6 for students; group prices available. Seating is limited; reservations can be made by calling 618-462-6562.

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