Proof
Seattle Repertory Theatre, 443-2222.
Through Nov 10.

In its prime, realism on the stage tackled big chewy situations with unruly characters who threatened to burst the constraints of the style, like in Long Day's Journey into Night or A Raisin in the Sun. Now it's been domesticated into nice plays like David Auburn's Proof. Mind you, there's an appetite for plays like this: carefully written, pleasantly acted stories about well-drawn characters with modest problems that can be comfortably resolved in a couple of hours. It's an appetite usually fed by television, where close-ups can turn emotional flickers across an actor's face into resonant events.

Proof centers on the depressed daughter of a brilliant mathematician who went "bughouse." The daughter has inherited some of her father's gifts and fears she may have inherited his madness as well. When a former student of her father's finds a remarkably complex mathematical proof among the dead man's journals, the daughter claims she wrote it--and the supposed crux of the play is, did she? And if she did, will her sensible sister and the former student believe her?

Except that, by the play's conclusion, some satisfactory empirical evidence conveniently answers that question. So, this play must really be about the daughter emerging from her fear and depression... but as we watch, she shrugs those off with just a little positive reinforcement from outside. So at its core, this play hinges on an emotional bruise and the need for an apology. That's a genuine human conflict, true--but it's damn slender for an evening of theater. BRET FETZER

Cherry Cherry Lemon
Re-bar, 323-0388.
Through Nov 25.

The remounted production of Keri Healey's two-woman play, Cherry Cherry Lemon, is as fine a piece of talking theater as I've seen in a while. It's been said by others that the subject matter--two ladies navigating their romantic hunger and disappointments--is old hat. I prefer to think of it as timeless; loneliness being the fundamental, immutable subject. Healey's shrewd command of language makes Cherry a delectable variation on that most durable of themes.

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The piece is composed of overlapping monologues and dialogues between Amy Augustine, a businesswoman still reeling from her recent divorce, and Keira McDonald, a party girl trying to reconcile her growing desire for stability with her taste for the pursuit of happiness (and random sex). Their friendship arises accidentally, and is challenged by passive resistance on both sides--Augustine's character frequently cites a Buddhist koan about the importance of withdrawing from the burden of others. Inexorably, however, the friendship becomes a vital means of survival for both of them. Again: boilerplate. But again: the language! Modulating between the inarticulate naturalism of dancefloor confessional and the heartbreaking precision of self-knowledge, Healey's script is both forceful and delicate, knowing and curious, wise without arrogance. It's also hilariously frank, but an undergirding sadness makes the laughs empathetic, and therefore all the heartier.

Much of the show's immediacy, of course, can be attributed to the expert timing of the performers, both of whom are impeccably restrained and masterfully concise. Augustine in particular is a marvel, commanding the small space of Re-bar with the intense, seductive vulnerability of a smart, beautiful woman whose sorrow is compounded by self-conscious contempt for emotions she can't get over. Watching these two actresses draw nearer, slowly realizing what they mean to one another, offers the rare and wonderful pleasure of art that is real, true, and--despite the inherent artifice of even the humblest theater--unaffectedly human.

Cherry is presented with two "opening acts": Showerhead--a body-image deconstruction by McDonald that is simultaneously clever, bold, and way overstated--and a brief, painful set of frat-house cover tunes (come on, "Margaritaville"?) by Aaron Loidhamer, who makes up for it with deft guitar accompaniment for the superb main event. SEAN NELSON

Macbeth
Seattle Shakespeare Company at the Performance Studio,
325-6500. Through Nov 11.

William Shakespeare's play of political murder and revenge resonates with our troubled times, but only barely. Director Michael Kevin acknowledges the collective insanity that exists beneath the world of civilized politics. Both witches and civil servants wear anonymous flowing robes, while difficult moral choices fall to those naked--save for loincloth and forged steel--under a stormy, unyielding sky. But Kevin also has fun: Characters are introduced via a robe-divesting ceremony that would shame a professional wrestler, and early scenes promise an adventure story with haunting dialogue and plenty of PG-13 skin.

Then the actors start talking and ruin everything. Rex Young as the cursed king looks great but does little, especially in scenes where Macbeth's culpability needs to be explored so that his descent into atrocity has meaning. Young does better late in the play, ripping through lines of angry despair that are among Shakespeare's greatest, but who wouldn't? Despite working well with the placid Young, Amy Thone fails to invest Lady Macbeth with the sense of gravity the show-stopping role demands. This further skews the play away from its investigation of moral crime toward a tunic-and-sandals pageant, lobotomizing an already-simple thematic interpretation.

A few members of the supporting cast fare better. Playing Macduff, Kevin McKeon looks like a beefier Miguel Ferrer and intones his lines with a soldier's steely competence. I'm still not certain if Macduff frightened Macbeth, but he sure intimidated the crap out of me. Jim Gall makes for a very charismatic Duncan, while Nick Rempel's Banquo simmers with a quiet, bewildered decency. Both performances linger onstage after their characters' respective, bloody departures. If only I could be 100 percent certain they were killed for political purposes rather than upstaging the leads. TOM SPURGEON