Mesa Encore Theatre's Proof: Breathing Room in a Season of Extremes

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Lately, it feels as though theater's getting as insecure and vapid as some of the other arts: Everything has to be the first, the biggest, the funniest, the most shocking, or the most topical.

Times are tough and competition is fierce, so I get that. But the door is now open for someone to succeed by doing something small, quiet, and classic.


Not that David Auburn's 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof, as presented by Mesa Encore Theatre, is particularly quiet. As a family drama about people who may or may not be insane, but who are definitely smart and angry, it inherently sets off some fireworks. Star Katie Bowman and director Phillip Fazio have chosen to incorporate quite a bit of yelling. And most of the time, it works.

When it doesn't, it isn't so much a failing of the production's dynamic structure as it is a pitfall of the close quarters in Mesa Arts Center's Farnsworth Studio -- Bowman is sometimes right in the audience's lap when her Catherine lights into another character. The upside of the intimacy is that it's easy for the viewer to share both the subtleties and the high passion of the script's intellectual and emotional intricacies -- we can see shades of realization pass over the actors' faces, providing a richness that enhances the play's profound humor along with its embrace of loss and fear.

Proof might remind you of A Beautiful Mind -- the biography of mentally ill scientific genius John Nash is one of several true stories that inspired Auburn as he crafted the tale of an aging Chicago mathematician and his daughters. But father Robert (Ken Midler) isn't nearly as charming or theatrical as Nash; the really gripping aspects of the play are how it treats love, guilt, jealousy, and shame in ways that strike universal chords.

Mesa Encore is one of several community theaters in the Valley that have been around for decades, started out with an official relationship with the city where each is located, and have gradually been dropping the "Little Theatre" designation from their names. In recent years, a number of these groups have closed up shop, and the ones that remain rely heavily on mainstream musicals and time-honored comedies to sell tickets. (Ticket sales are a much bigger proportion of a community theater's revenue -- while they have expenses, they don't have to meet a payroll, and so although they do engage in fundraising, it isn't usually on a major scale.)

Mesa Encore is also really good at producing musicals and comedies -- in the past several years, I've been impressed with everything I've seen them do. So it's simply courageous and honorable, in a way, for the troupe to choose to present a drama that's not new and flashy, that has a small cast and a single set, that contains the f-word and a lot of dialogue about how the human mind works.

You wouldn't think this would be a challenge, compared to the work that goes into something like The Music Man or a knockabout farce, but it is. There's a lot going on here that doesn't call attention to itself.

For the most part, the company should be proud of their accomplishment. On opening weekend, the lightning cleverness of Auburn's lines was blurred by some miscues, but that's probably been smoothed out by now. The cast of four meshes nicely, and Brett Aiken's Midwestern back-porch set, along with Fazio's costumes, strike a balance between realistic detail and restrained stylization that creates a background against which they can shine.

Jessica Graham, as older sister Claire, plays a difficult character well: She has to misunderstand just about everything while appearing practical, caring, and controlling all at once, and Graham helps us understand why Claire might be the way she is. And Šime Kosta is an appealing bundle of energy as Hal, a former student of Robert's who provides both romantic and comic relief.

If you like theater because it's theater, because it can move you like nothing else can, you'll probably enjoy Proof. Though no one element of the production is so outstanding it'll take your breath away, each component is so well-crafted and respectful that the sum of the parts is a rather compelling show.

Proof continues through Sunday, November 20, at Mesa Arts Center, One East Main Street. Tickets are $20 to $25; order here or call 480-644-6500.

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