After staging 50 productions in 15 years, Red Deer’s Ignition Theatre is celebrating its 2019-20 season by circling back to the very first play the professional company presented.
Proof, by David Auburn, will be reprised with a different lead actor, but otherwise, the same cast, when it runs from Oct. 17 to 26 at the Nickle Studio, upstairs at the Memorial Centre.
Ignition Theatre’s artistic director, Matt Grue, says there are many reasons for remounting this Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama by American David Auburn.
There are scorching scenes about a woman’s struggle to cope with a family history of genius and mental illness, but the script is also “bitingly hilarious” and contains “an amazing mystery,” adds Grue.
Proof was a hit when Ignition first tackled it at the former Matchbox theatre in 2005, putting the company on the map for producing high quality, edgy local productions — so there’s a nostalgia factor to looking back, Grue admits.
“More than anything, it’s still my favourite play, and I suppose there’s something indulgent, but also artistically interesting, about revisiting old work with a new, fresh perspective.”
The plot centres on the daughter of a recently deceased renowned mathematics professor. Having cared for her father, Robert, during his long final illness, Catherine struggles with his legacy of genius, as well as hereditary mental illness.
When a ground-breaking paper about prime numbers is found in Robert’s office desk after his death, can Catherine prove her father was the author of this work?
She is drawn into a love affair as she looks for clues and struggles with her fear of inheriting her father’s mental condition.
Catherine will be played by Calgary actor Morgan Hayley Smith in this remounted production (Jennifer Hallian, who tackled the role initially, was unavailable).
But Grue says the other actors from the 2005 show will be back: Paul Boultbee, Christopher Schulz and Kate Adams.
This time, he feels he’s directing with a deeper understanding: “I now have a personal relationship with many of the play’s themes: mental illness, the loss of a parent, fear of the possibility of hereditary illness, among others…
“This will contribute to the honesty of the piece.”
As the play’s “hyper-realist” set is constructed in the tiny Nickle Studio, Grue looks back with pride at what has been a largely satisfying 15 years.
Grue once thought Red Deer would be a jumping off point to a career in a larger centre. But he says he began to realize early on how vital it was to keep producing live theatre in a place that needs it.
It became clearer “how important our work was and how much it was appreciated.”
Grue remembers people “begging” to get into a sold-out run of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and agreeing to sit way in the back, even though they couldn’t see the stage.
“We had a small crowd who sat … with their eyes closed, imaging the show, as they listened to it over the main speakers.”
He began suspecting that Ignition Theatre was providing more than simple entertainment when he received a letter from a young woman who had seen the company’s emotionally devastating production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, about an American protester in the Gaza Strip.
It was the first play the letter writer had seen, and now she was aiming to volunteer overseas, said Grue. He realized his production of Rachel Corrie, while not taking a political stance, was apparently influential.
“It was the first time that I realized that what we were doing was more than providing simple escapes for our audiences, and that our work came with a certain degree of responsibility.”
The company will continue its 15th anniversary season with It’s a Wonderful Life, the Live Radio Drama in December, and The Drowning Girls in April.
For more information about Proof and the other shows, please visit www.ignitiontheatre.ca.