theater: Believable "Proof" 

Barksdale gives the Broadway "Proof" a run for its money.

Parker was followed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress who specializes in playing psycho-cookies, and Anne Heche who plays a psycho-cookie in real life. Gwyneth Paltrow performed the role in London and may star in the film version. All of these 30-something actresses received impressive notices for their performances of an emotionally stunted woman in her mid-20s.

Local actress Erin Thomas may not yet have the glamour or experience of this more famous group. And she doesn't quite have Parker's razor-sharp comedic timing. But she brings something far more important to Barksdale Theatre's production of "Proof." Both in age and attitude, she's a better fit for Catherine, and that makes all the difference in how the play works.

In the Broadway production, both Parker and Leigh spoke in annoying baby voices to emphasize Catherine's lack of maturity. These voices, along with sexier-than-necessary costumes, distracted from the story. It was difficult to believe that Catherine was an intelligent young woman capable of serious thought about mathematics (or any other subject). In Thomas' assured performance, there are no such problems. Her emotional moments are more touching because the audience experiences a story rather than a star-encrusted performance.

Catherine's father, Robert (Matthew Costello), is a brilliant mathematician who has suffered from mental illness for most of his adult life. Among other things, the play explores the connection between mania (though the illness isn't specified) and genius. Catherine worries that she will suffer her father's fate and there is considerable evidence that she may be right.

Meanwhile, a postgraduate rummages through Robert's notebooks hoping to find some undiscovered gem of mathematics. Once a promising student, Hal (Kevin Hoffmann) now frets about his own capacity to produce first-rate mathematics. Just as he's ready to abandon the search, Catherine directs him to a drawer that contains an earth-shattering mathematical proof.

Like Thomas, Hoffmann is perfectly suited for his role. And the chemistry between them is another significant improvement over the Broadway show. Director Steve Perigard has a good feel for the magnetic fields that alternately attract and repulse these two characters.

In the wake of a family crisis, Catherine's sister, Claire (Susan Sanford), flies to Chicago and attempts to drag Catherine back to New York. Sanford does a nice job of conveying a complex mixture of good intentions, pushiness and insecurity.

Robert W. O'Leary's green-trimmed back porch actually looks like a miniature version of the Broadway set. Through the windows and doors, we catch glimpses of the interior and know that Catherine and Robert care little for their surroundings. Vanessa Leuck's costumes and Lynne M. Hartman's lighting are equally good.

Though "Proof" is not a revolutionary script, David Auburn's dialogue is some of the best in the business. The way he turns his characters in and out through a scene is stunning. And the story is so much better when we can believe in the performances. S

"Proof" runs through March 9 at the Barksdale Theatre, 1601 Willow Lawn Drive. Tickets cost $20-$28. Call 282-2620.


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