Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2004
Proof opened in New York City in 2001, first off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club from whence it moved to the Walter Kerr Theatre a few months later. The second full-length play by a heretofore relatively unknown playwright, David Auburn, it went on to win the Joseph Kesselring Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Award, and the Tony Award for Best Play of 2001. It is a strong script, though not perfect, and Auburn spins a gripping yarn.
Here are the first three dictionary definitions of the word “Proof”:
1. The evidence or argument that compels the mind to accept an assertion as true.
a. The validation of a proposition by application of specified rules, as of induction or deduction, to assumptions, axioms, and sequentially derived conclusions.
b. A statement or argument used in such a validation.
a. Convincing or persuasive demonstration.
b. The state of being convinced or persuaded by consideration of evidence.
All of these apply to Auburn’s play, which centers on Catherine (Vashti Poor), the younger daughter of Robert (Chuck Portz), an eminent mathematician at the University of Chicago, who has just died of heart failure after living many years with an unspecified mental illness. The play begins on Catherine’s 25th birthday, September 4th, a day before her father’s funeral. Since her mother’s death, Catherine has devoted all of her late adolescence and early adulthood to caring for her father, preventing him from being institutionalized. To do so, she has postponed her own college education and possible career in mathematics.
Has Catherine inherited her father’s mathematical genius? Or his mental illness? Or both? What will she make of her life now that she has completed the draining and important task of helping her father live and die with dignity?
We see Catherine with her late father, both in fantasy and in flashback episodes. In real life she is dealing with her older sister Claire (Stephanie Hedges), a successful Manhattan businesswoman who knows she has inherited only a small portion of her father’s mathematical talents, and an ambitious young mathematician named Harold Dobbs (Frank LaFrazia), a former graduate student of her father’s, who has designs on Catherine and her father’s legacy.
Harold is either romancing Catherine or trying to worm his way into her life in order to gain access to the 103 handwritten notebooks her father left behind in hopes of finding some nugget of mathematical gold. He succeeds in bedding Catherine and getting from her a notebook containing a brilliant mathematical proof, which Catherine claims is her own work not that of her father. Harold and Claire seriously doubt Catherine, and each demands their own proof of her mental competence and mathematical abilities.
As you can see from the description above, there are a lot of numbers in Proof. Dates and ages and periods of time and numbers of notebooks are all carefully recorded and repeated. The world of numbers is precise and controllable. The world of emotions and ideas is terrifyingly unpredictable.
This production at Main Street Stage, directed by Mira Hilbert, is a very good one. The intimate space works well for this intimate play where seldom are more than two people on stage at the same time. Hilbert and her performers present the play in an extremely naturalistic style, making you feel as if you are truly peeking over the backyard fence at your neighbors back porch conversations.
All four actors turn in excellent, nuanced performances. Poor is an outstanding Catherine, appearing both young enough and intelligent enough for the role. Hedges is all black-clad neurotic New Yorker as Claire, the older sister who never quite measured up. The two actresses make nice work of the painful family dynamics which always ensue when a death occurs. Who did father love the most, who loved him best, what will happen now, who will prevail?
Portz is completely believable as a middle-aged mathematician, but, while I found his one “mad scene” moving, I was never convinced I was witnessing someone in the grip of true mental illness. This cannot be blamed entirely on Portz or Hilbert, since Auburn reveals so little about the nature of Robert’s diagnosis in the script. On a brighter note Portz’s scenes with Poor are all touchingly real as they play father and daughter slowly dancing through the change of who is the caregiver and who is the recipient, who is the adult and who is the child.
LaFrazia is goofily charming as Harold “Hal” Dobbs, the only character in this play to possess a last name. At first I wasn’t sure whether or not I was supposed to like and trust Hal, but at the end I was quite smitten with him and was rooting for him and Catherine to have a life together eventually.
While Proof is primarily a family drama and therefore accessible to even the most mathematically challenged in the audience (that would be me) it is also a tantalizing and terrifying peek into the bizarre subculture that is mathematics. It is considered unlikely that Catherine is the author of this amazing proof, not because she merely possesses a high school diploma, but because she is a woman. In reading up on the play, I was horrified to find the following question in a recent discussion of Proof on the Mathematical Association of America Web site: “…can a woman really do highly original [mathematical] work?” I would have thought by the year 2004 humankind would have figured out that it is so very improbable that anyone of any gender, race, class, or religion is capable of doing highly original work in any field that genius should celebrated wherever and whenever it is found, but this is not so in mathematics. There are a profusion of sociological theories about why so few women achieve in this field, but no one has dared to advance a purely biological quirk which rules all women completely out of the running for mathematical genius.
Can genius and/or mental illness be inherited? We have better proof of the latter than the former. Since Robert’s mental illness is never identified it is difficult to say whether it is of a variety known to be passed on genetically. And it if there is one enormous flaw in Auburn’s script it is Claire’s insistence on evaluating Catherine’s mental stability in the days immediately following the death of their father, who has literally provided Catherine with her raison d’être for her entire adult life. On her 25th birthday she suddenly has to deal with immense freedom and immense grief the like of which she has never confronted before. Claire swoops down and immediately sells the house where Catherine has lived her entire life, wanting her to move to New York within a week of their father’s passing Is it really any wonder that Catherine is more irritable and has wider mood swings than what is considered “normal”?
Hilbert has designed a creative set representing the back porch of Robert and Catherine’s run-down home in Chicago that makes good use of the narrow confines of the Main Street Stage by making them even narrower and more restrictive. The set is as “real” as the acting, and Hilbert and her players manage to find a good variety of stage pictures in the small space. The action is nicely lit by Steve Nardin.
A film version of Proof starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Catherine, Sir Athony Hopkins as Robert, Hope Davis as Claire, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Harold Dobbs, is due for release this Christmas Eve. Paltrow played the role on stage in London to great acclaim, although many were incensed that she was cast in the film over Mary Louise Parker, who originated the role in New York. It will be interesting to see how Auburn’s intimate, even claustrophobic, play makes the transition to the big screen and the freedom it affords.
Proof runs through October 3 at the Main Street Stage, 57 Main Street in North Adams. I was so engrossed in the show that I forgot to time it, but I would put it at about two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. The show is too mature to be interesting to young children, but those 13 and up will probably find it enthralling. For tickets and information please call 413-663-3240.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004