“There is no love, only proof of love,” upper middle–class suburban black matron Constance Daley declares as she holds vigil for the fifth day in the private I.C.U. room of her husband Maurice who is in a coma after a car accident. What the cool, unemotional Catherine would like in Chisa Hutchinson’s world premiere play, Proof of Love, presented as the first play in the Audible Theater Emerging Playwright Commission, is a sign that her husband of 32 years still loved her. However, this does not seem possible in his condition.
As she waits in his room, she addresses the unseen Maurice (whose bed is surrounded by curtains) by reviewing her fears of his lateness on the night of his accident on the way home from his weekly poker game at his friend Harry’s. But the unflappable Constance knows something she has been holding back: she has unlocked her husband’s smartphone and discovered that he has been having a weekly affair with Lashonda, a younger city clerk, for the last eight years of their marriage, and that is where he was rushing by car eight miles in the wrong direction to getting home.
Proof of Love is a tour de force for one actress – though to some extent there are three people on stage – and Brenda Pressley, who appeared in Hutchinson’s Surely Goodness and Mercy earlier this year, makes the most of this woman of privilege who married a man who was socially below her but impressed her with his attentiveness more than the men in her own circle. Dressed in designer Jen Caprio’s elegant salmon pink sweater set, grey slacks and tasteful silver jewelry, she looks like she is just about to host an afternoon tea party. Which is just what her estranged daughter can’t stand about her.
The first half of the play is mainly exposition of events in the past, a review of their comfortable marital routine and real companionship, her unfortunate relationship with her daughter Madison who resents her too white name and her mother’s elitist behavior which looked down on her friends for bad language and poor grammar – and has changed her name to Sonny, and what she first thought of Maurice when she met him: a man who had pulled himself out of the projects and the poverty he was born into. However, by that time, he was wearing bespoke suits, but he never managed to keep from saying things like “between you and I” which gave his roots away to Constance’s private school, cotillion-attending, moneyed friends with their etiquette, expensive cars and good grammar, as well as her canny parents who saw through his disguise.
However, the hospital has given Constance a deadline: by Friday she must decide whether to pull the plug or send Maurice to long-term care in a nursing home. Her daughter calls to give her a list of places that she has researched but the hospital has made it clear that Maurice is unlikely to recover yet it would be unethical of them to tell her what decision to make. The effect sound design by Justin Ellington allows to hear Maurice’s ventilator and other machines that are monitoring his vitals.
And then when the play seems to be going in the director of more of the same, Lashonda begins texting Maurice’s phone with questions about why he had not been to visit. Constance dares to answer as her husband and a “conversation” begins with Constance playing Cyrano to Lashonda’s Roxanne which she reads to us in what she imagines to be the other woman’s voice. However, Constance knows a good deal about Lashonda by then, her three children by the same man she has not married, her Facebook posts that she likes, her poor choice of vocabulary, etc. Lashonda seems to be Constance’s opposite in every possible way.
In looking over the past, she begins to wonder if it is her own snobbery that drove Maurice to look for someone from his own working class background where he could be himself and not continually acting a role. She now knows that Maurice was on the way to Lashonda to answer her question: “I can’t settle for half a man no more. Me or her. Choose tonight.” What Maurice’s choice would have been is driving Constance crazy. And then Lashonda offers to send Maurice’s wife the email she has composed to reveal their affair. Constance may just find out what Maurice really thought of her after all these years.
Never really losing her cool, Pressley always commands the stage even though scenic designer Alexis Distler has made it difficult by creating a huge private room, beautiful in its understated way in blues and beiges, but difficult for one person to fill the space. Yes, Maurice is presumed to be in his hospital bed on stage right, and Lashonda is on the smartphone, but Pressley must negotiate the entire stage herself. Director Jade King Carroll has found reasons for her to move around from chair to sofa to a chair on the other side of the room, but has not helped much in making the play build an arc. The effective lighting by Mary Louise Geiger subtly shifts from afternoon to evening light without our realizing how much time has passed.
Chisa Hutchinson’s Proof of Love is dense in its details and knowing about long relationships. It does wane a bit in the middle when it just seems like a review of past events before the conversation by text begins. It is less naïve and more mature than her recent Surely Goodness and Mercy but it is weak in building to a climax. However, as a woman “as close as you can get to a WASP while being black,” Brenda Pressley as Constance Daley always holds our attention even when there are no answers forthcoming. This is a fascinating study of black upper-class suburban culture not often seen on our stages.
Proof of Love (through June 16, 2019)
Audible Theater in association with New York Theatre Workshop
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, in Greenwich Village, Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit http://www.proofoflovetheplay.com
Running time: one hour and 15 minutes