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‘Proof’ pulls audience onto stage with actors amid story of mental health illness, family

Cori McDaniel and Larry Friedland portray father and daughter in “Proof” at ShenanArts. Photos by Rebecca J. Barnabi.

Mental health illness takes the stage at ShenanArts this weekend and next weekend.

‘Proof,” by American playwright David Auburn, won a Pulitzer Prize and was first performed on Broadway in 2000.

“For me, it really hits home for me,” said director Clarence Finn, who watched his grandfather battle Alzheimer’s when he was 15 years old.

A major theme of the play is watching a loved one’s health decline.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Finn said.

Many individuals will witness the decline of a loved one at some point in life, and perhaps care for a loved one.

“I think it’s a very real, relatable story,” Finn said.

However, according to Finn, the story also contains a sense of hope and funny moments for the audience.

For “Proof,” up to 70 audience members will sit on the stage with the actors in on the edge seating and be brought into their world.

“You’re up there with these characters,” Finn said.

Finn said he hopes audience members take away “a greater sense of empathy.” He hopes they learn not to judge others and to offer help to others in need while also trying to understand what they are going through.

“It’s a very real-life story,” Finn said of the two act-show with a 15-minute intermission.

According to actor Larry Friedland, who portrays “Robert,” audience members will feel like they are part of the family sitting on the stage. He was previously seen on the ShenanArts stage in “Once” and “Misery.”

As a staff member at Valley Community Services Board, where he works with individuals who have mental health illness, Friedland said he used the human reference point from his work to bring “Robert” to the stage in a realistic way without making light or making fun of his condition.

Friedland and Cori McDaniel, who will bring “Catherine” to the stage, fell easily into portraying father and daughter because they have worked together before.

“We’ve really had a collaborative experience in that way,” McDaniel said.

In fact, during rehearsal for one scene, McDaniel said Friedland sat next to her on a bench instead of sitting somewhere else to deliver dialogue. She followed suit by taking the opportunity to lay her head on his shoulder.

Friedland said the challenge in portraying “Robert” has been conceptualizing as a parent watching your child witness their parent’s mental illness.

McDaniel said “Catherine” is going through a lot in “Proof” and goes on “a big journey.” She turns 25 years old and is proud to be her father’s daughter but is also afraid to be too much like him.

“A strong desire also to kind of break from his shadow,” McDaniel said of “Catherine’s” journey, which includes a woman pursuing a career in STEM. “So, she’s having to fight to prove herself in a lot of ways.”

McDaniel said she hopes audience members take from the show the importance of listening to others who say they need help and believing what they say.

“I think that’s a really strong message as well, because that’s something these characters are really fighting against a lot in the show is believing each other for what they say and what they say their experiences are,” McDaniel said.

Friedland said he hopes audience members appreciate the realness of a family dynamic struggling with mental health illness.

“There’s no casseroles for mental illness,” Friedland said of family and friends not visiting when mental illness strikes a family unlike when death or illness strike.

McDaniel said she thinks the show can help to destigmatize ideas about mental health illness, which is why she is glad no mention is made of “Robert’s” diagnosis, because it could be a variety of illnesses.

“Proof” will be performed at ShenanArts Thursday, June 13, 2024, and Friday, June 14 at 7 p.m., Saturday, June 15 at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sunday, June 16 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $19 per adult, $17 per student and senior. Tickets are available online and at the theatre box office.

‘In the shadow of mental illness’: ShenanArts to present Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Proof’ – Augusta Free Press

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.

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