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First City Players presents character drama ‘{proof}’
Rebekka Esbjornson, left, and Jack Finnegan rehearse a scene from the production “{proof}” on Wednesday at the Ketchikan High School auditorium. The character Catherine is played by Esbjornson and the character Hal is played by Finnegan. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek


Daily News Staff Writer

First City Players has opened its production of "{proof}" this week, a play that won the 2001 Pulitzer prize for drama and 2001 Tony award for best play.

“Mainly, it’s about family,” FCP Executive Director Elizabeth Nelson said. “Mainly it’s about how we see ourselves — how our environment shapes us and how we come away with that.”

Nelson outlined the plot of the four-character drama written by playwright David Auburn, and first produced in 2000.

“The core story is, there was a brilliant mathematician, who, before he was 25, was able to solve three major math problems that had sort of stumped mathematicians for however long,” Nelson said, speaking from her desk at the FCP Main Street office.

She further outlined the plot, describing the mathematician, Robert, as a professor at the University of Chicago who began to experience mental illness as he aged, making it impossible for him to continue working.

His younger daughter, who inherited his mathematical genius and possibly his mental issues, takes on the role as his caregiver at the end of his life.

“The story really centers around the daughter who is the caretaker, whose name is Catherine, who is played by Rebekka Esbjornson for us,” Nelson said.

The play explores the relationships between Catherine and her older sister, Claire, who re-enters her life after their father’s death, as well as with Hal, a former student of their father’s, who discovers a groundbreaking mathematical proof in Robert’s old notebooks.

The father, Robert, is played by Keith Smith, Claire is played by Lydia Kline and Hal is played by Jack Finnegan.

Nelson said the strength of the play is its exploration of the real challenges inherent in people’s lives.

“One of the things that I think is so important that is explored through this script is also the role of being a caretaker, and how that affects the individual who is doing that job, which is in many ways, a thankless and invisible task,” Nelson said.

Nelson described the play as addressing many serious issues, but also as being multi-faceted.

“The play itself is wonderfully paced,” she said. “It’s funny, it’s human, you love the characters and seeing their journey and where they end up at the end of this whole adventure.”

Nelson said the play is a special challenge for the actors, as the entire performance must be carried by them.

“The weight of responsibility on those four people is enormous,” Nelson said. “And, it’s not just the fact that they have to learn 70 pages of dialogue, it’s that every moment that happens on that stage — there’s nothing to save them. There’s no big song and dance numbers, there’s no set changes, it’s not, you know, fancy costumes. It’s them telling a very heartfelt story.”

Volunteer set designer Halli Kenoyer stopped by the office and chimed in on the FCP production of the play.

“I sat in on the first reading, and I got tears in my eyes,” Kenoyer said. She added, laughing, that such a reaction is not usual for her, as she is a “hard-hearted bastard.”

Kenoyer continued, describing her response to the play.

“I laughed — I had a hard time keeping it under control. It was so good,” she said.

Nelson agreed.

“It’s the laughter that is surprising to people with this play,” she said.

Kenoyer said, “You don’t expect to laugh as much, because it’s serious and it makes me angry and gets me righteous and all these things.”

Nelson added, “but in our every-day life, that’s what we do. We laugh in the face of tragedy … and that’s part of what is so amazing about this play. It’s so completely human, it so tells a true story.”

Kenoyer said it is a story with “people doing their best.”

She also added, that as an art teacher at Ketchikan Charter School, that she’d love to take her students to see the play if it had been rated for younger viewers.

“I wish I could have every kid at school come and see this play, because you see people grow in their journeys — every single person grows,” she said.

Nelson agreed, and addressed the rougher language used in the play, which garners it an adult-only rating.

“There’s nothing gratuitous about it,” she said. “It’s part and parcel, and it’s emotionally relevant, and it makes sense.”

She said it still took years of experience and growing confidence in her role as head of FCP to choose to produce a play with such language.

“I feel committed that I want our audiences to always know — if there’s something that would offend them — they know before they walk in the door so they don’t purchase those tickets,” Nelson said.

She described the methodology the organization uses to choose the array of productions offered each year.

“Part of what we really try to do as an organization is, throughout the eight productions we do a year, have something that would appeal to almost any audience member,” Nelson said.

She explained that in addition to broad-appeal plays, they also like to choose what they call a “challenge show” each year, that tackles tough topics.

Although "{proof}" required a small cast and offered a big challenge for actors, Nelson said 18 people showed up to audition for the four-member cast.

“Ten years ago, I’d be out there beating the bushes to get people in,” she said, “so it was really exciting to have so many options.”

Nelson said she didn’t really have words to explain how she chooses actors for a cast. She said she spends time with a script, and gets an idea in her head for what kind of actor would ideally fit each role.

“Often, it’s very surprising who you end up casting,” she said. “If you would have asked me in November if the four people in this show would be the four people I would cast, I would have laughed at you.”

She set up a unique challenge for herself in casting her husband, Keith Smith, in the play.

“It is kind of hard to work with a spouse in this capacity,” she said, chuckling.

Her casting has exceeded her expectations, however.

“They’re a dream cast,” she said. “They’ve worked so hard and they’re willing to just take every chance.

“You have to get pretty raw,” she said of playing the characters in "{proof}." She added that the actors have to “just be able to find the emotions in there, really allowing themselves to go all the places they need to go. I’ve been really, really, really impressed with them.”

“The essence of a play is ‘play,’” Nelson said. She explained that, “even in a drama — as an actor in that — you have to allow yourself that sense of play is not always happy. If you watch children play, what they’re doing is not always happy-jumping-skip-ropes-and-swinging kind of play.”

She explained that another powerful way that a playful approach can help an actor is that it unfetters the mind.

“That freedom to play, that freedom to allow yourself to not question what you’re doing, to not edit yourself along the line — every step of the way — which is really hard to do,” Nelson said. “Because as adults, we’re constantly editing ourselves for societal reasons.”

The crucial achievement for an actor portraying a character is “finding the core truth,” Nelson said. “Part of what I love doing so much in a play is being able to delve more deeply into the whys of character. So, when you have four characters and no dances and no music and no scene changes … it’s been really fun to watch their process and watch them learn who these people are.”

The sponsor of the FCP production of "{proof}" is Akeela-Gateway Mental Health Services.

FCP Marketing and Outreach Director Amanda Glanzer said that when sponsors are sought, there is a specific goal.

“We like to find businesses whose mission or aesthetic or whatever it is about them, matches well with the show,” Glanzer said.

She explained that because "{proof}" and Akeela both address mental health issues and caregiver issues, they were an ideal match. She said that Akeela staff from Anchorage will be attending a performance on the second weekend of performances, and will set up an table at the venue with information about services their organization provides, as well as other mental health resources in Ketchikan.

“Mental illness is part of the story,” of the play, Nelson said, but “it’s not the main focus of the show.”

She said that being able to use that part of the story to help people is “very cool, because we know, it’s such a stigma and it shouldn't be. But, it is.”

"{proof}" opened Thursday and Friday, and there also will be performances at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 2, as well as Friday, March 8, and Saturday, March 9, in the Ketchikan High School auditorium.

Akeela’s leadership team also will be hosting an open house at Gateway Mental Health Services, located at 3052 Fifth Ave., from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., March 8.