Encore Michigan

“Proof” that dinner and theater go together at The Dio

Review February 06, 2016 Donald V. Calamia

PINCKNEY, Mich.–When folks hear the term “dinner theater,” they most likely imagine a place that serves rubber chicken and presents frothy comedies and merry musicals. Neither is true of The Dio – Dining & Entertainment nestled away in the Livingston County community of Pinckney, which recently opened its third season with David Auburn’s “Proof.”

Proof: Dio Dining & Entertainment, Feb. 5, 2016It’s a risky choice, to be sure – dramas aren’t typically seen as compatible with crowds of hungry theatergoers – but it’s one co-founders Steve DeBruyne and Matt Tomich are willing to accept, since previous attempts at more serious musicals as “Violet” and “The Last 5 Years” were audience pleasers. But a full-fledged, honest-to-(insert name of your favorite deity here), two-act drama? Are they nuts?

Apparently not, as the intimate crowd that braved the cold and snow squalls on opening night responded enthusiastically to both the atypical production and the tasty meal prepared for them by Chef Jarod.

In “Proof” – which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama – the death of Robert (played by Dan Morrison), a much-acclaimed mathematician, finds his daughter and caretaker Catherine (Esther Jentzen) wondering if she has been both blessed and cursed with the same gift and affliction as her beloved father. And she’s not the only one; into town swoops elder sister, Claire (Molly Cunningham), who wants to sell the family home and have Catherine return with her to New York to live – and not just so that each can enjoy the other’s company.

Complications arise, however, when Hal (Tristan Rewald), a former student of Robert’s who is doing research at the house, is handed a notebook with what portends to be a major discovery. Could this have come from the once-brilliant mind of Robert, who had struggled with mental illness for the past several years? Or is another author – one not seemingly possible – responsible for the work?

If you’re like me, math – or even the talk of math – might make your eyes glaze over. That’s certainly not the case with “Proof,” however. Like a scientist in search of the truth, playwright Auburn uses his work to explore a handful of tough questions, such as: Is the innate ability to process complicated equations something that can be passed from one generation to the next? And if so, can mental illness? In doing so, Auburn examines the dynamics among members of a family strained by distance (of all types), and how the introduction of an outsider into the mix can impact a previously decided-upon outcome.

The result is one of the most intelligent, stimulating and entertaining dramas to hit the page so far this century – even for dinner theaters!

Having a superb script such as this isn’t enough for a successful production, however. So too is a skilled director and a talented cast who can find all of the nuances in the words and give them life. Here, The Dio gets it mostly right.

What struck me most about the opening night’s performance were the many “little moments” that director DeBruyne found that emphasized and gave added meaning to the words of Auburn’s script. Early on, for example, Jentzen – a very natural actress – gave a quick, meaningful expression to Catherine’s deep, inner thoughts when Robert described the age at which he started noticing his mental deterioration. And in the closing seconds, as Catherine and Hal sat talking on the porch swing, Rewald’s non-verbal gaze provided a clear and heart-warming conclusion to the story. (Out of the handful of times I’ve seen a production of “Proof,” this for me was its most satisfying ending.)

Likely the most difficult role is that of Claire, a character for whom it’s easy for audiences to hate. Cunningham, however, comes close to but never crosses the fine line that’s needed to keep Claire haughty and smug, not bitchy and mean.

And Morrison? Although he’s still a wee bit young to play Robert, stage magic works wonders, and the result was a performance that had me thoroughly convinced. (It likely helped that the made-up Morrison looked and carried himself like an academic I know – but he doesn’t – at one of the universities.)

If there’s work still needed, it’s this: There were moments – especially early on between Catherine and Robert – that seemed a bit awkward; that the actors hadn’t quite gelled as a family, so that their verbal and physical interactions with one another didn’t feel familiar and natural. I suspect as the cast becomes more relaxed and comfortable with their lines and roles, this awkwardness will disappear.

Tomich’s set is exactly what Claire describes in the show: an older, very lived-in home that has seen better days. Lighting and sound choices couldn’t be better.

Although I didn’t partake of the buffet, folks all around me raved about the Lo Mein and Sweet & Sour Pork and Chicken. And doubling on opening night as the theater’s sole waiter was DeBruyne, whose attentiveness, friendliness and overall sincerity had the crowd loving their interactions with him.

The Bottom Line: The Dio’s plan to add the occasional drama and adult fare into its mix of shows is the perfect recipe for success – and here’s “Proof!”

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