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Innovocative Theatre company debuts with workmanlike production of 'Proof'

Dennis Duggan plays Robert Marie-Claude Tremblay plays Catherine in Innovocative Theatre's first production, Proof, by David Auburn. Photo courtesy of Staci Sabarsky.
Dennis Duggan plays Robert Marie-Claude Tremblay plays Catherine in Innovocative Theatre's first production, Proof, by David Auburn. Photo courtesy of Staci Sabarsky.
Published Jul. 25, 2017

TAMPA — A new company debuts with Proof, David Auburn's Pulitzer-winning play. Innovocative Theatre, founded by Dunedin native Staci Sabarsky, is currently running productions out of Stageworks Theatre space. Sabarsky also directs and performs in the show.

The story, in which the subjects of mathematical genius, family dynamics and mental illness are intertwined, was by 2002 the most widely produced play in the country. A 2005 film followed, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. For Innovocative, the launch shows a bold new venture standing on shaky legs, taking a shot at Sabarsky's stated mission of diving into thought-provoking and controversial issues.

It's an admirable first step. Four characters, each with well defined yet vastly different goals, split a heavy load. Each has shining moments, even if the production as a whole seems more workmanlike than gripping.

The script jumps back and forth in time, beginning with a solitary birthday celebration. Catherine has turned 25, and she's not quite alone — her late father Robert has reappeared for a chat and to supply the champagne. His brilliance as a University of Chicago mathematician, undermined later in life by mental instability, foreshadows her own path.

Her sister, Claire (played by Sabarsky), will soon appear, intent on straightening family affairs after Robert's death. And there's Robert's nerdy but amiable student Hal (Devin Devi), who has just completed his doctoral thesis. At stake lies the fate of a notebook Hal found in Robert's study, containing a lengthy mathematical proof. Hal declares the proof, which concerns prime numbers, would "change mathematics" if true, though we never find out how.

But who wrote it? And to whom, by the way, do great discoveries belong — only to the author, or to the world which stands to gain by them? The play spends much time unwrapping those questions, neatly framed around a struggle between sisters and a budding romance. Indeed there are some nice contrasts shown by Marie-Claude Tremblay, who plays Catherine, and Sabarsky as the controlling Claire. For the most part, Tremblay brought an appealing naturalness to Catherine, though at times her frustration seemed stagey and forced.

Dennis Duggan is an interesting choice as Robert, who shows up in flashbacks sprinkled throughout. We're told about a restive, brilliant mind but see a mostly folksy and amiable father, albeit one who keeps his daughter on a tight leash. It doesn't help that the vaunted script offers no dialogue for this genius that would evince more than above average intelligence. (The otherwise representational set strikes a similarly discordant note with its equations scribbled on the stage floor, apparently because why not, this is about math.)

Duggan does, however, reach the character's humanity in a lovely monologue about the college's fall season. It's a moment that captures the heart of the play and rewards us for having come to see it.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.