Bryan Lopez's charm seems key to enjoying the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's production of Proof. That's not to say that he's the only reason to take in director Steve Parmley's presentation of author David Auburn's material, but I do want to acknowledge that it's his character's grace and agreeableness that draw you into the play, as he's our sympathetic and likable connection to the plot's proceedings. During Friday's performance, the eagerness with which Lopez's Hal tried to lure Stephanie Moeller's Katherine out of her house to hear his band of math geeks perform held such sincerity that I hoped she'd say yes solely for his sake.
Without Hal's charming attempts to socialize with Katherine - Proof's central figure - it might be tough to connect with Moeller's character, as the young woman is acerbic and antisocial, and not somebody one would necessarily want as a friend. However, Moeller layers her mathematically gifted woman with a sense that she's abrasive because of her life experiences, and particularly the experience of caring for her mentally ill, mathematics-genius father Robert (Mark Leo McGinn) in his waning years. As we watch Katherine struggling with life following her father's death - doing little more than sitting in Robert's back-patio chair while his math student Hal pores over the late professor's notebooks, looking for a publishable legacy - Moeller reveals Katherine's inner turmoil. She deals with fears of following in her father's unstable footsteps and argues with her sister Claire (Alexa Florence) about moving to New York, where Claire can care for her. Yet although her Katherine is cold and sometimes caustic, Moeller still manages, impressively, to elicit sympathy for her character through the gradual revelation of her mental torments.
Florence's Claire falls on almost the opposite end of the scale as a woman who is convivial and friendly, but who manages to seem somewhat insincere about it, and in a condescending way that suggests that she believes Katherine's personality is directly linked to her breeding. She's not unlikable, especially given that Florence adeptly delivers many of Auburn's funniest lines, but it's also easy to understand Katherine's disdain for her doting sister.
As their father, McGinn tends to come across as a bit patronizing, insincere, and pitying. Yet while McGinn has some notable roles under his belt - most recently Herr Schultz in Quad City Music Guild's Cabaret from earlier this year - he doesn't seem to fully connect with his character here, as the actor's line deliveries feel mostly recited rather than organic; they're delivered with inflections that feign emotion but don't seem to possess it, and are almost always accented with hand gestures, whether needed or not. Still, his Robert is presentable and there are laudable moments in McGinn's performance, particularly during the scene in which the inspired Robert is writing a proof during a time of clarity and, in his excitement, so focused on work that he refuses to eat and come in from the winter's cold.
It's Lopez, though, who drives the emotion in Playcrafters' Proof, with Hal's connection to Katherine emerging through the audience's connection to Hal. The actor's charm, combined with Moeller's depth and Parmley's pacing and careful, respectful treatment of Auburn's play - with Parmley's effectively minimalist set design allowing the performances to take the spotlight without distraction - make for an admirable presentation of very fine material.
Proof runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline) through September 22, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 or visiting Playcrafters.com.