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Proof: A troubled production about a troubled genius

Joanne Kelly and Joe Dinicol in a scene from "Proof"

Angela Besharah / Inside Light Studio

2.5 out of 4 stars

Who knows how these trends come about really, but back at the turn of the millennium, there was a strange string of movies and plays romanticizing mathematicians as geniuses, madmen or a combination thereof.

The film world gave us Good Will Hunting, Pi and A Beautiful Mind in quick succession, while British playwright Charlotte Jones penned Humble Boy and American David Auburn provided Proof.

Proof – which won the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and was turned into a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow – turned out to be particularly popular. Indeed, by The Wall Street Journal's calculation, it was the most performed play in the United States last decade, excluding Shakespeare's works and seasonal shows.

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A new production from the young Red One Theatre Collective allows Toronto audiences to reconsider Proof 10 years on and, alas, reveals that it is not aging with distinction. In this revival, which I saw in its final preview, Auburn's play comes across as a rather drab and flabby romantic drama, left behind by the zeitgeist, swiping at big ideas but never connecting.

For five years, Catherine (Joanne Kelly) has put aside her math studies to look after her father Robert (a twitchy, sonorous John Evans), a University of Chicago professor.

Though Robert made major contributions to not one, not two, but three fields of mathematics in his prime, of late his main work has been scrawling compulsively in notebooks about aliens and the Dewey Decimal System.

Catherine and Robert begin the play chatting on the back porch on her 25th birthday, but things take a turn when the father notes that he is dead and has been for the past week – suggesting that his daughter may be following in his footsteps, psychologically speaking.

Proof's other two characters wonder if that's the case: Hal (Joe Dinicol), a grad student, who becomes involved with Catherine while going through Robert's documents; and sister Claire (a strong Dani Kind), who has arrived in town for the funeral and is insistent that Catherine return with her to New York.

After a notebook turns up with a proof that seems to solve an old mathematical mystery, Catherine claims it is her work – but her sister does not believe her and Hal is not sure what to think. Can we ever really prove things, or must we trust one another?

The questions surrounding Catherine's sanity – is she mad, or isn't she? – must drive the narrative, but in Kelly's altogether too likeable and well-adjusted performance, it never seems seriously possible that she's losing it.

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Kelly – star of the Syfy network show Warehouse 13, but who may be better-known to theatre fans for her turn as Juliet in Stratford spoof Slings and Arrows – has a magnetic presence, a bewitching smile and expressive, empathetic eyes, all of which rather dilute the drama. She does have a sexy chemistry with the convincingly nerdy Dinicol – one of Red One's founders who has dedicated this performance to his late grandfather, John Neville.

In general, the acting in this bare-bones production is solid if not exceptional, though the overall direction of David Tompa leaves something to be desired. Red One Theatre Collective has done a number of "site-specific" productions around Toronto, but the term is a misnomer here. What they've done is construct a cramped, makeshift theatre in a loft studio located in the West End – a lost opportunity.

Rather than embracing the shape of the room, Jason Pooley's back-porch set squeezes itself into a narrow space. It's a rather disastrous design – the actual acting area being so minimal that the actors have very limited mobility, making much of the movement appear awkward. A pupil's desk that takes up centre stage is almost comically small – and Claire has a heck of a time trying to arrange breakfast for two on it. Poverty can lead to incredible invention in the theatre, but here you sense a company wanting to work beyond its means.

Proof runs until Dec. 18.


  • Written by David Auburn
  • Directed by David Tompa
  • Starring Joanne Kelly, Joe Dinicol, Dani Kind
  • At the Branding Factory in Toronto

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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