Two Plays on Life and Learning

Two entertaining and thoughtful plays opened this weekend, the Woods Hole Theater Company‘s “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” and the Barnstable Comedy Club‘s “Proof.” While, in many ways, the two offerings are very different, both plays espouse the value of learning, making the best use of our natural abilities and saying yes to life, rather than succumbing to the many ways we have of saying no. Both showcase very talented young cast members. Both evoke laughs and knowing smiles, yet give one something to think about. Both are well worth seeing.

My husband and I saw “Kindergarten” on Friday night. Directed by 20-year-old Alex Colacchio, the play is a dramatization of Robert Fulghum’s 1986 best-seller of the same name. The book is a loosely connected collection of essays on life lessons: why we should be kind to each other, clean up our own messes, and hold hand when crossing the street. The five characters (Stephanie Brown, Matthew Day, and Keirnon McDermott, all in their early 20s, and the older in age but not in spirit, Dan Groves and Lori Spurling) act out 22 vignettes about the meaning of life and death.

The director and all the actors told me, prior to the show, that the play held meaning for each of them, individually, and that all felt that audience members would take away some special meaning from the play too. And there is, indeed, much that rings true about the messages: the importance of “looking,” keeping one’s sense of wonder and believing in one’s own creativity.

The play is really a dramatic reading of the essays in the book, which characters taking turns narrating and acting out scenes. This works well for the most part, and many of the skits are humorous as well as thoughtful. With few props and limited scene changes, the actors are dependent on vocal nuances and body language (and the donning of eyeglasses) to convey the personality and age of their characters. They accomplish this well.

I must admit I wanted to rewrite some of the stories though. In one, an elderly woman (Lori Spurling) shows patience and understanding of her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, causing him to want to wish people a Merry Christmas about four times a year. Though this was a very sweet scene, the script might have been improved if the wife had been shown coming to terms with some of the more difficult problems caused by Alzheimer’s. Contending with the frequent celebration of Christmas does not seem to be too much of a hardship, considering how challenging Alzheimer’s can be.

“Proof” deals with another form of mental illness: the madness of a once-brilliant mathematician at the University of Chicago, and his daughter’s fears of going insane herself. Written by David Auburn in 2000, “Proof” won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2001 Tony Award for Best Play. It was made into a movie in 2005, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins as daughter and father.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play, which we saw Saturday night. It showcases the impressive talents of 17-year-old Hannah Van Sciver, who plays the 25-year-old Catherine, distraught about her father’s death and depressed by years of setting aside her own goals to take care of her father as his sanity declined. She is outstanding, showing compassion for Robert, her father, attraction to Hal, one of his former math students, mixed emotions toward her controlling sister Claire, and angst over who she is and where she is headed.

Jessica Adams plays Claire, Catherine’s older, successful, and condescending sister from New York City, who thinks she has Catherine’s best interests at heart.  Adams is wonderful in this role, alternately caring and annoying, and always fun to watch.

Mark Bourbeau plays Robert, seen in flashbacks and Catherine’s imagination, convincingly both rational and demented.  Hal is played by Bobby Mangahas, who is intent on going through Robert’s notebooks to see  if he can find any

A proof, in mathematics, is logical series of arguments demonstrating that a mathematical statement is true. In the play, “proof” refers to both a complicated mathematical proof that Robert–or Catherine developed, and to the process of proving whether Robert, an accomplished, but insane, mathematician did the work, or whether Catherine, a college drop-out, somehow came up with it.  At the same time, human relationships among the four characters are explored.

I was a fan of math in high school and college so was particularly intrigued by a play based on a mathematical proof. You don’t have to know anything about math to enjoy the play though; just enough explanation is given to make the proof sound interesting, without overwhelming us with details.

We learn that mathematicians (like kindergarteners) may peak early, making their important discoveries in their twenties; but that creativity and supporting one another is ultimately what life is all about.

“Kindergarten” is at the Woods Hole Community Hall March 18 to 20 and March 25 to 27. Tickets are $12. “Proof” is at the Barnstable Comedy Club March 19 to 21, and 26 to 28.  Tickets are $16, $14 for seniors and students. See the Enterprise on Friday, March 19, for my complete reviews of both plays.

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