Play explores familial hardships and death — Review: ‘Proof’

A student-run production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Proof ” by David Auburn appeared in Waller Hall’s Studio Theater this past weekend.

The story revolves around Catherine, played by Chelsea Kikel (junior, theater), a troubled young woman who cares for her brilliant, yet mentally ailing father, Robert played by Michael Schwartz in the last years of his life.

The play begins with Catherine and Robert speaking in front of their home in Chicago. It is Catherine’s birthday, and the mood is light until Robert reveals that he has been dead for two weeks, and Catherine is speaking to him only in his head.

Enter Hal, played by Ryan Thornhill (senior, theater) – one of Robert’s former students who is examining Robert’s writings from his period of illness to see if there is anything of value in the midst of thousands of pages of scribbled nonsense.

The conflict between Hal and Catherine becomes apparent as Catherine suspects the smart, but by no means brilliant, Hal of attempting to plagiarize her father’s work.

The next morning, Catherine’s estranged sister Claire, played by Samantha Sostak (junior, theater), arrives from New York for Robert’s funeral.

The rest of the play focuses on the relationships between the four characters, with Catherine terrified that she will become just like her father, Claire feeling responsible for everyone, and Hal torn between his feelings for Catherine and the ambitions he has for his own career.

Kaitlyn McGilvray (senior, theater, sports administration) directed the show and designed the set.

“I did a scene from ‘Proof ’ in class and fell in love with it.” McGilvray said. “I just wanted to let more people know that this story was out there.”

McGilvray also pointed out unique challenges faced because of the timing of the show.

“Our biggest challenge was that several of us are involved in ‘The Pajama Game,’ so balancing time was an issue.”

McGilvray said the show was cast in November and that rehearsals began on the first day of classes, leaving the cast and crew with roughly four weeks to prepare a finished product, a risky task which they executed extremely well.

The studio theater was also used by last weekend’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” so the cast and crew had less than a week to translate rehearsals from another part of Waller into the show’s actual space.

Kikel acted as sound designer for the show and played Catherine.

“It was a dream role for me,” Kikel said.

Kikel describes the rather heavy subject matter as “depressing, but very inspirational at the same time.”

While Catherine’s character arc doesn’t occur until very late in the play, the show’s ending suggests that Catherine can escape her inherited mental instability to live a different life than the one laid out for her by her father.

Kikel also had the idea to add a soundtrack to the show, not only to facilitate scene changes but to create a playlist for what was going on in Catherine’s mind as well included the artists Fleet Foxes, Cage the Elephant and Daughter.

While the production was almost exclusively made up of Indiana University of Pennsylvania students, theater history professor Michael Schwartz portrayed Robert, Thornhill provided much-needed comic relief as Hal, and Sostak played the straight-faced, no-nonsense Claire with ease.

With such a small cast and a minimal set, the focus is drawn to the characters and their actions rather than the plot itself.

Luckily, the cast of “Proof ” set an excellent pace with Auburn’s sometimes dense dialogue right from the opening scene and made the near two-hour runtime zip by.

While the show explores familial relationships – the clash between doing what one wants and following in a parent’s footsteps – and mental illness, the play is never judgmental, instead offering sensitive examinations of people who love each other caught in tragic events beyond their control.

“Proof ” is a complex, substantive show with roles that require acting chops to carry the numerous one-on-one scenes, and this cast nailed it.