Review: Proof at Theatre Within

The Theatre Within sits nestled in Fountain Square on the brink of something big. As this Indianapolis cultural district begins to experience revitalization, it seems a resident theatre is just what the doctor ordered. Luckily, Rod Issac, founder of the Theatre Within at the Church Within, has already marked his territory and found his audience in preparation for the growth of this trendy part of Indianapolis. The Theatre Within’s latest Indianapolis theatre offering, Proof by David Auburn, opened Friday and runs through June 26 at Fountain Square’s Church Within. Family discord, young love, grief and a revolutionary mathematical discovery are key ingredients in this riveting Pulitzer Prize winning drama. With a keen director’s eye, a beautifully structured script jumps from page to stage to our imaginations in an exciting evening of Indianapolis performing arts.

With hardly a theatre space to their name, the Theatre Within makes the best with what it has. Neat rows of chairs face a squeaky raised platform, minimally designed to create the back porch of rickety house on the campus of the University of Chicago. As the lights come up on a bottle of champagne carefully placed center stage, Issac’s distinctive directorial eye is already in play. Eerie toy piano music clinks out of the sound system as Catherine pops open the bottle, given her by her father Robert, taking a big birthday swig of what she claims is “the worst champagne [she] ever tasted.” She fingers through pages of magazines as he accuses her of a wasted youth. A math genius since his very early twenties, Robert unfailingly points out that by the time he was her age, his most important work had already revolutionized the field of mathematics.

Auburn’s script is diligently written; each line is laced with the keys to unlock the plays mystery. Though Catherine and Robert’s dialogue seems normal enough birthday chatter between a concerned father and a listless daughter, it becomes apparent (though not overtly), that something is amiss in this exchange. Between the off key tinkering of the toy piano and the fact that Catherine never looks directly at her father, Issac subtly establishes the paternal spectre that haunts Catherine, influencing her decisions throughout the show and setting the pace for the mystery that unfolds.

When it debuted in 2000, Proof took the theatre world by storm taking home the Pulitzer Prize and a string of other prestigious awards. These accolades are well deserved for a script with airtight structure, interesting characters, original content that unfolds as if an adventurer is following a carefully planned treasure map. The story follows Catherine after the death of her genius father, as her sister and his most favored student, Hal, revolve around her in an attempt to pick up the pieces. When Hal discovers a monumental mathematical proof among Robert’s things, it seems that his academic legacy lives on. That is until the authorship of the proof is brought into question.

Peppered with both clever and commonly used devices throughout, Proof makes use of dramatic structure in every way possible. Yet for this story to truly come to life, it takes a director whose understanding of such devices can be accessed through his own creativity for storytelling. Issac adds to the rich fabric of the story by employing similar dramatic devices of his own on stage, as he deftly elicits believable performances from community actors. Like a glove tailor made for a hand, Issac’s directorial mind provides a perfectly matching home for David Auburn’s script.

Like many other Indianapolis community theatres, Theatre Within is restricted to casting Indianapolis people who are willing to volunteer their time to Indianapolis art. Day jobs, family obligations and full time lives often stand as obstacles to many who act as a hobby in Indianapolis theatre. But Issac shines as a casting director, picking picture perfect actors that fit the bill for their roles in inherent ways. In this way, Issac makes his job a bit easier. But the process of drawing out such honest performances from part time actors is no cake walk.

At its core, Proof revolves around one character: Catherine (Danna Sheridan). After years of caring for her mentally ailing father, she opens the play consumed with grief over his death. As she grapples with exhibiting both his gift for math and his curse of mental instability, she must face the students who idolized the man she saw at his most base and a sister who has only a cursory understanding of how difficult life has been carrying such a burdensome yoke. Sheridan’s strength in the role comes from her comfort in Catherine’s sardonic humor. She shines as the wise cracking, jaded youth winning the audience with funny and often dark insights about those around her.

However, Sheridan’s tendency to live in this angsty place when faced with a scene that calls for emotional honesty weakens her overall performance. With a strong connection to the parts of Catherine that push people away, Sheridan’s believability floundered when her action changed from rejecting to accepting. Yet overall, Sheridan’s commitment to Catherine’s wry view of the world made me a willing follower of her story.

The strength of Proof comes not from any individual performance, but from the believability of each individual relationship, specifically Catherine’s relationship with the characters that orbit around her. Though only in a few short scenes, Glenn Dobbs’ portrayal of the addled mathematician fits well. Sheridan and Dobbs share a comfort level on stage that translates easily to the dependence Catherine and Robert have for each other. As a man plagued by genius, Dobbs manages to convey Robert’s short sightedness for things like birthday dates without making him a villain.

Jeremy Kinnett dons the hat of love interest as the Hal to Sheridan’s Catherine. Initially, Kinnett’s performance confused me. A buzz with nervous energy, I found it hard to distinguish between the awkwardness his nerdy character naturally exhibits and the nerves of a bumbling actor. Perhaps both permeated his first scene on stage. Where Sheridan takes comfort in Catherine’s sarcasm, Kinnett finds solace in Hal’s awkwardness. Physically, Kinnett fits the bill for the role. His lanky limbs, long hair and a goofy smile seem to scream “Math Nerd!”

However, his immaturity in performance is quickly revealed as he continues to play one action throughout the entire play. Kinnett fails to change tactics as he woos Catherine, making for very few levels throughout and an uninteresting romance. A breathy vocal quality and unnatural sexual chemistry with Sheridan punch holes in his performance. Yet, Proof is redeemed through stellar writing and an understanding director. Issac focuses Kinnett’s awkwardness when and where he can, relying heavily on Kinnett’s ability to illuminate Hal’s innate sweetness.

In the role of Claire, Kristin Katsu raises everyone’s game. With nearly ever line in her first scene posed as a question, it was extremely refreshing to see an actor attempt different tactics to achieve her goals on stage. As the neat freak sister, she plays the polar opposite to the sarcastic Catherine. Their relationship becomes clear as Katsu brings a more finely tuned actor out of Sheridan. As the sister find themselves in opposition over what will happen to their father’s house and to Catherine, their conflict manifests itself in a battle over cleanliness: Claire cleans and Catherine messes. In this moment, Issac illustrates his ability to create in the same voice as Auburn, utilizing a similar device as Auburn employs in his writing.

The talent for solid storytelling at Theatre Within stems from Issac’s talent as a director to shape each actor’s performance to mold a lively story. He ably takes what each actor brings to the table and illuminates their talents to further his own ideas about the story. As he creates within the bounds of his space’s technical limitations, Issac and his designers (scenic design by Ruth Hawkins, lighting design by Morgan Ozenbaugh) focus on what they have, as opposed to what they lack. It feels as if Issac employs this same mantra in drawing interesting performances from enthusiastic actors: focus on what they do right, as opposed to what they do wrong.

As an Indianapolis artist with the luxury to produce scripts that he finds interesting, one can only hope that Issac’s choices remain relevant rather than self serving. At its heart, Proof is a play about being human, about grieving, about growing older and about the search for purpose, greatness and validation. Artistic director, Rod Issac, is introducing Indianapolis audiences to some of the best modern writing of the “aught decade.”  In all, David Auburn’s script provides a perfect road map for a riveting theatrical drama. In the hands of a focused sensitive director, the burden of proof in this instance rests on the old adage: “seeing is believing.” See for yourself the grounded work happening at the Theatre Within now through June 26.

Before the show, treat yourself to dinner at any of these Indianapolis restaurants. Afterward, discuss the burden of Proof over drinks at any of these Indianapolis bars. Stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Events and Information on Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. We cover Indianapolis attractions to Indianapolis sports and everything in between. This is Katelyn Coyne saying, “Get out in Indy and find some fun!”

Now through June 26

Theatre Within at the Church Within
1125 Spruce Street
Indianapolis, IN