American Players Theatre Closes 2023 Season With David Auburn’s Proof!

To my regular readers: Back in April when I ordered my APT tickets, I didn’t realize that November 19th was the closing show. Normally I try to see a show early in the run so you can read a response here and still have time to go.

Nate Burger, David Daniel & Kelsey Brennan, Proof, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

So there I was in the American Players Theatre Touchstone watching Proof just spooling out in front of me and I fell in love. No, no, not some celebrity crush, but with Catherine, the protagonist of Proof. And who wouldn’t love this feisty, genius, determined, passionate, long suffering sister, and loving caretaker? Oh, yes, I saw the red flags but…but at some point we’ve all talked to someone who wasn’t there. Right?

Nate Burger & Kelsey Brennan, Proof, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

So how did this happen? Well through the very careful and very artful acting of Kelsey Brennan who distilled Catherine’s personality quite thoroughly. Moving from the loving daughter to the ambitious scholar and mathematician to the doubtful grieving daughter to one suffering from a moment of imposter syndrome to one fearful of her own mental health to lover to protector of her own self worth and value. And of course because director Brenda DeVita who kept Catherine front and center as is meant to be and I am sure guided Kelsey through the changes in mood and attention while keeping the character true to life. An incredible accomplishment…

Laura Rook & Kelsey Brennan, Proof, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

Catherine has two antagonists here. First her domineering sister, Claire. Claire lives in New York City and is estranged from Catherine in a way. BTW, Catherine lives in the family home in Hyde Park in Chicago where she cared for their dying father. Claire is clearly defined by Laura Rook as a very cool and calm and reasoned individual who is used to getting her way. And although intelligent and successful, maybe just a bit jealous of her sister’s math genius. But without consulting Catherine, she decides to sell the homestead and force Catherine to move to New York. Of course there is some serious tension there as a result.

David Daniel, Proof, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

And then there is Hal, a protege of Robert, the father of Claire and Catherine. He’s a math nerd and professor at the University of Chicago where Robert also taught. He’s spending long hours at the house going through Robert’s study and papers to determine if there is any meaningful work to be discovered. Nate Burger presents us with the perfect Hal, crushing on Catherine, interested in Robert’s research, and looking to make a name for himself if he can find something of Robert’s to edit and publish. He can be direct at times and self deprecating at others and Nate understands his true form.

And David Daniel is Robert. Yes, David gives us a very calm and reasoned father and professorial sort. And we feel a great empathy for him as he glides from lucidity to madness without much notice.

Kelsey Brennan & David Daniel, Proof, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

So, David Auburn titled this Proof and given the math topic threaded throughout, you’d take that as the key reason. But, no. At one point after being suspicious of Hal’s motives, Catherine comes to trust him and provides access to a locked drawer which contains a proof of remarkable importance. But here is a sea change as she reveals that she wrote it and not her father. And now Proof becomes her task to prove that she did in fact write it, in the face of disbelief from both Claire and Hal. And this lack of trust destroys a growing faith she had in others.

Laura Rook, Proof, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

Yes, this certainly is a drama about family, relationships, culture and society…it’s not actually about math. But there is a great deal of humor too and that brings a great deal of joy to the audience. Auburn’s language is precise and playful all at the same time and one of the best plays that I have ever seen (I saw this some years ago at the Milwaukee Rep which made me know I had to see it again at APT). But I bet one gag has changed in its humor since this was written in 1999-2000. Hal goes on to admit to being a nerd and defines his peer group as nerds and then goes on to describe that class and provide a list of synonyms, some silly and some rather mean. I bet in 2001 they got a laugh for spearing stereotypes of the time, but in a post Big Bang Theory world they are probably just as funny but in a far more familiar way!

I have seen a lot of great theater this year. I think this is my favorite one coming from a major theater group. Thank you Brenda DeVita, Kelsey Brennan, David Daniel, Nate Berger, and Laura Rook. I hope to see you all next season!

Kelsey Brennan and David Daniel, Proof, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren and courtesy of American Players Theatre

American Players Theatre Presentation Of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town

Some how I put off seeing Our Town for 72 years and then suddenly experienced two compelling performances in a matter of months! (Here’s my response to my previous encounter at The Lake Country Players). But today, I want to share my thoughts about Our Town at APT!

cast Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

So once again, I find myself in Grover’s Corners, NH, but this time seated outdoors amongst towering trees, ten thousand crickets, a number of agile bats, and an audience of eleven hundred other theatergoers who are about to become my best friends and neighbors. Partly by our close proximity sheltering from a brief bit of rain and then by Wilder’s classic take on small town rural America!

Ronald Romàn-Meléndez, James Ridge, Teri Brown & Samantha Newcomb, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And as we settle into our seats, we see that APT has taken Wilder’s stage directions to heart and we have the two dining table sets and two ladders that define the two households that share the timeline of the story. Perfectly suited to the rustic stage at the Hill Theater. And the cast took to heart the directions to mime most of the activities…perfectly…from stirring pots in the kitchen, to pumping water, to delivering milk, and tossing the morning paper on the porch (accompanied by a very satisfying and resounding slap sound effect)!

In act one of course we meet Grover’s Corners through a pair of presentations to the audience from guest speakers on stage, the description of the town’s geography by the stage manager, and then the commencement of the typical day…and we meet the residents as they play out their familial interactions and daily activities. And as we watch and eavesdrop, we realize that every day life in an idyllic community isn’t always quite so idyllic. A far more realistic portrayal than sit coms of the 1950s and 1960s, for certain.

But we do meet the two nuclear families central to the story. The actors here exemplify their characters to a T! The Gibbs family, James Ridge is Dr. Gibbs, Teri Brown is Mrs. Gibbs, and their two growing, active, and curious children, Ronald Roman-Melendez as George and Phoebe Werner as Rebecca. And across the stage in Spring Green but across Town in Grover’s Corners, we learn to love the Webb family, newspaper editor Mr. Webb played by Jefferson A Russell, Mrs. Webb played by Tracy Michelle Arnold, and the aware Webb children, Samanatha Newcomb as Emily, and Susanna Van Hallgren as Wally. A perfect cast that presents the characters and personalities of their roles just as you’d expect for turn of the (20th) century rural America. And the young people to pay close attention to are George and Emily of course, as they age and mature, and discover how deep feelings can really really reside.

Ronald Román-Meléndez & Samantha Newcomb, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And of course scene two is where the pinnacle of the action in Grover’s Corners is told. As Emily calls out George for an unlike George change in attitude and action…and George comes to the realization of what he really wants out of his life and the best way to achieve it…and of course his love for Emily. Wedding bells ensue!

Samantha Newcomb, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

And then on to the third and final act which gives us Wilder’s expressed theme, The play is about Mortality. And here brings to fruition the Emily she grew into in the previous two scenes…an observant, mature, and feeling human being unlike anyone and everyone else in the play. Samantha Newcomb truly presents that feeling human being and is the star of this show!

Sarah Day & Jefferson A. Russell, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

An aside and then a quibble: For me the stage manager is the key ingredient for a successful Our Town. The stage manager needs to be flexible since the role changes throughout the play and it requires a certain amount of gravitas. Over the years, I have loved Sarah Day in any number of plays, but I don’t think she quite had the feel for the stage manager the evening I attended the play. And the quibble: I sat dead center although higher up in the seating bowl…but Sarah played too much to stage left, particularly during the intro even for me sitting in the center.

Our Town played as the classic play that it has become. Tim Ocel did a marvelous job directing given the sparse sets and props that Wilder allows if you are to stay true to his vision while also expressing your own. And the 1901 costuming provided by costume designer Scott A Rott sets the mood for the period as well…wonderful.

As always: Extra credit reading: The 2023 Season Playbill

And if you want to catch Our Town: click here for more info and tickets!!

Tamara Brognano, Ronald Román-Meléndez, James Ridge, Teri Brown, Samantha Newcomb & Tracy Michele Arnold, Our Town, 2023. Photo by Liz Lauren.

all photos are courtesy of American Players Theatre