Oldcastle gives 'Proof' of its excellence

David Auburn's Pulitzer and Tony winner on stage at Bennington theater

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BENNINGTON — If you love the theater, and want to take someone to see a play onstage for the first time, then Oldcastle Theatre Company has just the work for you, packaged in a perfect late summer exclamation point to the regional theater scene.

Packed with excellent acting, effects, and a penetrating plot line with a broad appeal, one of this generation's most lauded and award-winning plays, David Auburn's "Proof," is bringing in crowds to much acclaim. Eric Peterson directs the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning play, which will run from Aug. 31 to Sep. 9.

The story focuses on young Catherine (Talley Gale), a troubled woman who sacrificed much of her own life and years by caring for her brilliant but unstable father Robert (Richard Howe), a renowned mathematician once on faculty at the University of Chicago.

As she navigates a flourishing romance with Hal (Ethan Botwick), the discovery of a cryptic notebook has her pondering how much of her father's insanity — or brilliance — will become her own.

It also pits her at conflict with the object of her romantic desire, who was a former Ph.D student of Robert's, a complication enhanced and intensified by Auburn's intricate script. To add to it all, Catherine's more distant sister Gale (Halley Cianfarini) has to reconcile her own place in the family's affairs, swooping into the Second City from New York to do good, but with blinders on.

Despite a short rehearsal cycle in turning around from its last production, Peterson nevertheless had his four actors ready to play, and they played their hearts and souls clear through the entirety of Auburn's writing, which finds four scenes in the first act and five in the second, strategically mixing in flashbacks to add to the story's human, but also surreal and imaginative nature.

I've been watching old pro Howe for the better part of two decades at Oldcastle, and this may have been one of his top performances ever. He masterfully captured a sense of helplessness in Robert that was a critical thread in binding the other three characters. It was, at times, heart wrenching to watch the ravages of mental illness in his superb rendering.

The young Botwick, an artistic associate at Troy Foundry Theatre and a veteran of two previous Oldcastle plays, is starting to build a steady following among the theater's fans, and his Hal added to that success. Botwick grasped that the only non-family member on stage had a confusing place both emotionally and ethically, and his ability to navigate each one and move from one to the others was a seamless exhibition of his maturing acting chops.

Local Berkshires gal and Pittsfield, Mass. native Cianfarini debuted at Oldcastle and left the audience wincing at times by her cheery self-centeredness, which was, of course, the point. In entering the fray, Cianfarini's Claire had the pushy-all-knowing New Yorker down pat, but also added a fine element of fraternal tension to the mix as one might imagine between feuding sisters, whether adults or annoying grade schoolers. Local stages would be wise to keep this local daughter on their play cards.

Finally, the other Oldcastle rookie, Gale, wowed us with her sensual, razor's edge portrayal of Catherine, keeping us guessing throughout the story if she was brilliant, mad, or both. This is top-shelf acting from Gale, about as good as you can find anywhere on stage, right down to her split-second comedic timing when needed, to glances and facial expressions that sent chills and waves of pain out to the audience, hitting us in the gut, and making us want to cradle and shield her fragile Catherine. Hats off to this performance!

The play ran at right about two hours, which included a 15-minute intermission.

Wm. John Auperlee's set was a nice mix of surreal utilitarianism, and use of digital projection technology to turn one doorway into several different entrances. Costumes by the ever-perceptive Ursula McCarty fleshed out each character to help enhance the visual appeal of Auburn's script.

Lights by David V. Groupe had some dazzling emotional effects, as did sound by Corey Wheat, who was also in charge of the aforementioned projections. Finally, the show was capably stage managed by Gary Allan Poe.

Director Peterson likes to say that "Proof" is one of the great American plays of the 21st century, and he would be spot on with that assessment. Auburn's matchless writing brings us an all too human tale that found heads nodding and sighs heaving all during the sold-out performance I attended — as well as a standing ovation at the end.

But it also takes expert acting to grab hold of this script and make it a visceral experience. And this is why if you love the theater, and want to bring a newcomer into its fold, Oldcastle's version of "Proof" will not only tingle your own sense of humanity, but also welcome whoever you bring with you, showing that 3,000 years of this art form is proof enough to make one more fan of someone in the seats.

"Proof," by David Auburn and directed by Eric Peterson will run through Sep. 9 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington. Tickets and info: 802-447-0564 or www.oldcastletheatre.org.

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Assn. (ATCA) and a longtime regional journalist and drama critic. E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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