A Compelling Search For ‘Proof’ At Actors’ Playhouse

If you’re someone who’s always taken your own sanity for granted, you may be blessedly unfamiliar with some of the emotions explored in Proof, which poses, for its main character, the compelling and unsettling question of whether she is losing her grasp. Now playing at Miami’s Actors’ Playhouse, this 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Auburn is, if not a terribly iconoclastic choice of work, still one that gives audiences a good deal to consider.

Along with a surprising amount of humor for a play billed as a drama, Proof offers an engrossing, suspenseful story that easily maintains your attention from start to finish. Off the bat, the play elegantly establishes the central dilemma through through a scene between Catherine, the aforementioned protagonist, and her father— who not only suffered for most of his life from what appears to be a serious case of schizophrenia but is actually recently deceased.  

Jessica Sanford and Michael McKenzie in PROOF at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre (Photo by Alberto Romeu)

Cynical and acerbic but ultimately likable, the fact that Catherine is clearly quite intelligent is no guarantee she will be safe from the mental illness that dogged her father; in fact, if anything, it’s another warning sign that the two may share more than DNA. 

In his own youth, before an initial breakdown from which he never fully recovered, Robert made a name for himself as a famous mathematician through a series of genius interdisciplinary discoveries; but has spent the years since so incapacitated by his worsening condition that it was only the sacrifice and devotion of Catherinewho gave up her own education to care for him after her mother diedthat kept him from being institutionalized. 

Contrasting with these two eccentrics is Catherine’s more down to earth older sister Claire, who Catherine still seems to resent for emotionally deserting them by moving to New York (from the play’s setting in Chicago), even while doing so and landing a cushy job allowed her to provide for them economically. 

Jessica Sanford and Stephanie White in PROOF at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre (Photo by Alberto Romeu)

The fourth character in this four-hander of the play, and only one who isn’t part of this particular dysfunctional family, is Hal, a student of Catherine’s late father who is hoping to find something of value in the many, largely incoherent, notebooks his mentor left behind. 

He’s also clearly intrigued by Catherine, adding a will-they or won’t-they tension to the plot that well complements its primary plot. In Auburn’s brilliant work, a conclusion is never obvious, and neither is the plot’s trajectory— in particular, a revelation at the end of Act One introduces a new element that both further calls into question Catherine’s sanity and poses a related conundrum about how much her late father might’ve possessed when he appeared to be in the depths of insanity. 

Far from a by-the-numbers story, Proof is an insightful look at, among other things, the complexities of trying to navigate relationships given the looming shadow of madness, real or potential, with Claire’s attempts to make sure her sister is safe and sane just as understandable as Catherine’s outrage at being doubted and scrutinized. 

Jessica Sanford and Michael McKenzie in PROOF at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre (Photo by Alberto Romeu)

The care we see Catherine continue to show for her father despite his deterioration, explored in flashbacks—and the care that Hal begins to develop for her despite knowledge of her own potential tendencies in the play’s present—are also moving testaments to the ability of love to transcend some incredible obstacles.

The entire play takes place on a single front porch set effectively designed by Gene Seyffer, and costume design by Ellis Tillman also helps emphasize and convey the characters’ states of mind, from trendy and together outfits for Claire, more down to earth attire for Hal, and casual even to the point of disheveled clothing for Robert and occasionally Catherine that accurately reflect their disinterest in appearances and scattered state of mind.

Director David Arisco excels at leading a talented cast of local actors in this precise and compelling work, which never seemed to drag or falter during its crisp near two-hour running time. 

Jessica Sanford ably balances the complexity of Catherine’s internal landscape, portraying a character who is at once self-assured and vulnerable, navigating an unenviable set of circumstances while trying to maintain her dignity and advocate for her worth. 

Daniel Llaca and Jessica Sanford in PROOF at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre (Photo by Alberto Romeu)

As Claire, Stephanie White provides the necessary energetic counterpoint to convey the sisters’ strained dynamic, and Daniel Llaca as Hal is a suave enough suitor that we believe he’s capable of sweeping even the guarded Catherine off her feet. But the real MVP this time around was Michael McKenzie, portraying a lovable charismatic goofball whose outsize enthusiasm is also believable as something that could spiral into either genius or pathology. 

So, if you’re looking for proof that all the elements in this equation add up to an above-par production of a stirring and provocative piece of theatre that seems to have stood the test of time, then waste no time in checking out Proof before it closes this June 4th!

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