proofReviewed by Nancy Oliveri

Yesterday (Sept. 11), on the opening night of KNOW Theatre’s 2015-2016 season, the former fire station in downtown Binghamton welcomed a packed house, and David Auburn’s Proof, about a math professor and his daughters, brought the rapt, enthusiastic crowd to its feet.

Auburn’s Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play tantalizingly alludes to concepts and ideas to which even the playwright couldn’t have known the solution. Tricky dialogue fades at the end of some scenes and vaguely “mathy” phrases lend credibility to the work without boring the non-mathematically inclined in the audience (me, for example) to tears.

Proof is a longish play in two acts, with only four actors and one 20-minute intermission.  Director Nick DeLucia’s program note says: The appeal of Proof is that it is both cerebral and emotional .…Ultimately, (it) is not about a mathematical construct, but a play about the intricate and complex relationships between a father and a daughter, between two siblings, and between two young people. 

Thus, although the title might be a dusty old academic term, this play is anything but dry. The relationships are rich and believable, and although there are reportedly only five or six basic story lines in all of literature, there are a million ways to tell the same stories, and Auburn found a very original way to tell this one. The play is 15 years old but will withstand the test of time as long as there are college kids struggling for their piece of the action, and there are favorite teachers to help get them there.

KNOW’s Artistic Director Tim Gleason plays Robert, the professor and father of budding mathematician Catherine, played by Know ensemble actress Jessica Nogaret. This is a stage pairing calculated to use the real-life mentor/protégé relationship of Gleason and Nogaret to full effect, and it works. These two actors connect here with a clarity and authenticity that a different match-up of actors could not have accomplished.

Still young, and honing her craft, Nogaret, in some scenes without Gleason, moves a little too quickly from indifferent to snarky, then downright ticked off and screaming, which, in the confines of a black box theater, can be a little jarring. But you can’t doubt the method acting that gets her there. Catherine complains of being tired. I don’t doubt that Jessica is, too, by the end.

Some of her best scenes are with the wonderful Caitlin McNichol (as Catherine’s sister, Claire), whose work gets better and better.  I have seen her in, among other things, SRO’s Les Mis and several readings by Southern Tier Actors Read (S.T.A.R.). She was, more recently, in Moon For the Misbegotten at KNOW. (Although she does not sing in Proof, trust me, she can.)

When Claire meets Hal, so well-played by the boyishly handsome and energetic Erik Young, sparks fly, but not the kind he elicits from Catherine. He plays a young professor and former student of Robert, and he might be feigning a pure intellectual interest just to get his hands on the things that mean the most to this small but dysfunctional Chicago family.  But we can never quite tell, which is what makes Young’s interpretation of Hal so good.

I can’t tell you too much more about Gleason’s performance without giving away details about his character, but I will say that he completely inhabits Robert, in every phase of his existence within the play, and it’s a mesmerizing thing to watch.

DeLucia’s direction is stellar. I know him to be a really good actor, having seen him in a number of shows at KNOW, but what a pleasure it was to see what he was able to do with this ensemble.

All of the action takes place on the very shabby back porch of Robert’s home. Scenic artist Kat D’Andrea’s set designs lovingly capture the unmistakable neglect and poverty of spirit suffered by many of the characters who come to life in KNOW’s small space. The irony is how meticulously she attends to the details of her sets, neglecting nothing that might help paint the picture in the playwright’s head.  She does it again with Proof

Less harsh lighting might help to keep the stage cooler for everyone and would also help maintain the illusion D’Andrea worked so hard to create. Due to the closeness of the audience, painted bricks and peeling shingles that would play perfectly well on a stage farther back from the house seem a little cartoonish. With 20/20 vision, it’s a little like seeing a high-resolution image when a low-res one would work fine or better.

IF YOU GO: Proof is running 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 27 at KNOW Theater, 74 Carroll St. Tickets are $20 (seniors, $15; students, $10). Call 724-4341, or visit “Pay What You Can Night” is  8 p.m. this Thursday (Sept. 17); it is the only Thursday performance.

Backstories & Sidebars

In his opening remarks, Know Producer Ron Siwiec said the season is dedicated to the memory of Ralph Hall, a great friend and patron of the arts in Broome County and a great supporter of the KNOW Theatre. Hall, who was largely responsible for the group’s acquisition of the space it now fills, passed away in late July.

Siwiec also mentioned that the annual KNOW fundraiser, A Celtic Christmas, would be held Dec. 5 at Atomic Tom’s in Binghamton, as it was last year, but that tickets would not be sold at the door. He said that only about 100 of the 150 to be sold for the event remain and can be purchased for $40 in advance only.