It’s a rare playwright who can follow a formula without seeming to be formulaic.
That is the gift of David Auburn, whose 2000 play “Proof” serves as a beautiful permutation on one of the archetypal stories of contemporary American drama. In language both lyrical and visceral, it achieves an exquisite balance between raw emotion and searing intellect, between the beauty of abstract ideas and the messiness of real life.
A fine production of Auburn’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play directed by Norman Sham and starring a talented cast of four runs through Feb. 2 in the Kavinoky Theatre.
The formula is familiar: After the death of her father, a put-upon daughter who cared for her ailing parent must deal with the return of a long-absent sibling. Cue verbal fireworks. Cue broken plates. Cue tearful resolution.
But not so fast.
In Auburn’s hands, this intimately familiar plot-line is merely a point of departure for a much more complicated, and ultimately much more satisfying, equation.
Catherine (Jessica Wegrzyn), that put-upon daughter, sacrificed much of her early 20s caring for her father (Peter Palmisano), a brilliant mathematician idolized by his peers and countless protégés. After he dies, Catherine is left to cast about for meaning, which shows up in the form of her brash but sympathetic sister (Aleks Malejs) and one of her father’s geeky former students (Jonathan Shuey).
In the course of conversation, it comes to light that some of her father’s genius made its way – by heredity or proximity – into Catherine’s own tortured mind. But some of his mental instability may have come along with it, a possibility that terrifies both sisters and adds a welcome layer of complexity to the story.
In Wegrzyn’s face, we can read at least part-way into Catherine’s deeply conflicted psyche. Though her handling of the character on opening night was slightly rough around the edges, she was able to capture the outlines of Catherine’s emotional volatility: She can be sweet and venomous, crazed and composed, in the same breath. This is the perfect counterpoint to Malejs’ extraordinarily confident performance as Catherine’s sister, who pleads with her younger sibling to leave her father’s Chicago house behind and start a new life in New York City.
Shuey, who has turned in phenomenal performances in Road Less Traveled Productions’ “Buffalo Rising” and Subversive Theatre’s “Angels in America,” paints the self-consciousness and percolating ambition of his character in strikingly realistic hues. Palmisano is impossibly affable, as usual, imbuing his character’s lucid moments with such a convincing and endearing texture that his less lucid ones are all the more unsettling.
Sham, who is still feeling his way around the role of director, has put on a show to be proud of. On opening night, there were some subtle issues with timing which, like the rough edges of Wegrzyn’s performance, will doubtless resolve themselves in future performances.
As good as the production and the cast are – and they’re both quite good – the real star is Auburn’s script.
Like the beautiful equations that drive Catherine and her father to the edge of madness, the play makes elegant and unexpected variations on an old and dusty formula. It adds up to a great success.
3 stars (Out of four)
When: Through Feb. 2
Where: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.
Tickets: $35 to $39
Info: 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com