Left brain, right brain

The Year of Magical Thinking

Through March 1 at Mad Cow Theatre



$20, except "pay what you wish" on Wednesdays

Thanks to The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, first published in 1999, readers can learn how to emerge unscathed from a plane crash, a bear attack or a submerged automobile. But no one has yet written the definitive volume on how to endure the most devastating scenarios that we'll ever face. How do you patch up a broken heart? What is the quick fix for a dying child? Where is the surefire survival guide for grief?

The character Joan (Peg O'Keef) doesn't have the answers. She has a privileged coast-hopping lifestyle, provided by a lucrative writing career. She has a loving husband, who has inconveniently expired at the dinner table, single-malt scotch still in hand. She has a newly wed daughter lying in a Manhattan ICU, felled by septicemia misdiagnosed as the flu. And she has notebooks filled with seemingly random medical information: Xigris is the $20,000 antibiotic of choice for fighting septic shock; neurologists use the gruesome "Gilded Boy" story to judge analytical impairment; if a hospital assigns you a social worker, you're in real trouble. These factoids form a mental map that helps Joan navigate the minefield of her memories, where a familiar street can be transformed into a "vortex," dragging her into mourning bordering on madness.

The Year of Magical Thinking, adapted by author Joan Didion from her acclaimed 2005 memoir, benefits under the direction of Bobbie Bell from a bare minimum of theatricality. O'Keef, long one of my favorite Orlando actors, operates on a bare white set sans co-stars or complex props, but she can speak volumes with little more than a slow sip of water. Didion is a famously "cool customer," and her preternatural restraint makes the brief explosions of emotion all the more devastating. I saw a preview performance, but detected no pre-opening flaws save for overly abrupt lighting shifts. Don't miss this show because of its "downer" subject or dismiss Didion's defenses as simple delusions. Because, as she repeatedly says, someday it will happen to you.

Seth Kubersky


Through Feb. 21 at

Greater Orlando Actors Theatre

407-872-8451; www.goatgroup.com


There's something about mathematics that drives people crazy. We saw it in A Beautiful Mind, the story of schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, and I witness it regularly as my kids struggle with algebra. Proof, the 2001 Tony-— and Pulitzer Prize—winning play by David Auburn, also deals with the subjects of math and madness. Its two main characters are a father, Robert, whose youthful prowess as a paradigm-busting numbers genius has been overshadowed by a recurring case of midlife dementia, and his daughter, Catherine, who has inherited her father's mathematical proclivities and perhaps his insanity, as well.

The entire play takes place on the back porch of a run-down Chicago home where Catherine has been taking care of her afflicted father for the last unhappy years of his life. As Robert struggles to reclaim his lucidity, Catherine likewise struggles to launch her own foray into the mentally challenging universe of proofs and postulates.

When Robert dies, her private world is invaded by Hal, one of Robert's former graduate students. Hal is not only sweet on Catherine, he is eager to go through his mentor's gibberish-filled notebooks in hopes of finding the grand proof that has, so far, evaded his own less than formidable grasp. Catherine's estranged sister, Claire, also arrives on the scene in an attempt to pry Catherine loose from their childhood home and closer to her somewhat condescending, but sincerely sympathetic and watchful eye.

While Proof does utilize the patina of advanced mathematics as its modus operandi, it doesn't ask much of its audience's left brain, logical thinking, since it is really a play about the less rational cosmos of emotional relationships — father and daughter, master and student, sister and sister, lover and friend.

Directed by Leesa Halstead, the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre does a credible job with Auburn's script, although the production is not quite as "elegant" as the perfect proof to which all mathematicians aspire. The production values are minimal. At times the play's rhythms and stage blocking are as lumpy as a poorly rendered proof, and the acting is not all on the same axis.

While Sarah Lockard (Catherine) and Ashland Thomas (Hal) seem comfortably at home in their respective roles, cast members Tara Corless (Claire) and Rick Sotis (Robert) have not quite yet discovered their characters' deeper conflicts and incongruities. Sotis, in particular, sometimes appears like an actor lost in confusion, rather than a character that is confused by his loss. Those cavils aside, Proof is still a beguiling play with a catchy plot and interesting people going through recognizable difficulties.

Al Krulick


Through Feb. 15 at Lowndes Shakespeare Center




It's the final weekend for Orlando Shakespeare Theater's Wittenberg, and if you're not a fan who's come back multiple times, make sure to catch this witty and winning production before it's gone. Let's start with the stars: Jim Helsinger in the role of Dr. Faustus is brilliant, from his keen timing and rhythm to his genuine guitar work and singing voice. Considering that Helsinger hasn't been on the stage at the Shakes for five years, it makes it all the sweeter to see the company's artistic director in the lusty role of an open-minded and professor at the university of Wittenberg in Germany, circa 1500.

Helsinger is matched with Eric Hissom in the role of Martin Luther, a professor at the same institution, struggling with the incongruities between theology as he knows it and the Pope's religion. Hissom captures the faith and frailty of a man of the cloth caught between the God of his understanding, the corrupt dictates of the church and his own conscience.

The continuing dialogue spoken between Faustus and Luther also is masterful; the deeply thoughtful script by new playwright David Davalos creates multiple layers to contemplate. On the surface, it's a fast-moving and very funny rehashing of the argument "Is there a God?" But if Hamlet ever crossed your desk in school years, there are enough asides to make you feel smart. Those who've studied the Bard's tragedy won't be able to sit still, as the references — words, visuals and actions — fly by nonstop. Rest assured, however, that having no prior knowledge of anything Shakespeare does not spoil the main intellectual argument: to believe or not to believe.

And when it comes to matches, the character of Hamlet, played by Zack Robidas, delighted the audience with his turn at tennis. The easy smashes and drop shots made by the exuberant youth exemplified Hamlet's back-and-forth conversations with his two teachers: one imploring the youth to question everything; the other pleading for refreshment of his student's soul.

To avoid any spoilers, let's just say that as far as winners go in the dynamic match-ups — intellectual, comical, philosophical — there are none. And that's a good thing.

— Lindy T. Shepherd

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