All the Proof you need

Oct. 31, 2003, midnight | By Josh Gottlieb-Miller | 20 years, 6 months ago

The word proof, of course, has two important meanings. There's a mathematical proof, the best of which feature a clean, streamlined elegance and precise beauty. Then there's the other kind of proof-the messy kind. One could argue this isn't so much proof as faith. How can someone prove love or that they're sane. Insanity and genius are sometimes confused, after all.

Arena Stage's excellent production of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof addresses those issues (proof, insanity, brilliance) with a passion, gravitas and humanity that is a perfect match for Auburn's amazing writing. A tightly written spectacle, Auburn's funny, suddenly dramatic, always sharp script could be considered a kind of accurate theatrical proof.

Proof revolves around Catherine (Keira Naughton), a sadly brilliant woman who wasted some of her best years taking care of her genius father, Robert (Michael Rudko). From Catherine's first appearance, Naughton establishes the tired, untapped potential of a woman who could have been at the head of her field (her father defined two mathematical fields himself), but instead labored maintaining her father's health. Two variables enter the equation after her father's death: Catherine's sister Claire (Susan Lynskey) and a potential suitor, Hal (Barnaby Carpenter).

The wonderfully fluid chemistry between these four (Robert appears in flashbacks) does Auburn's material justice. Claire is a remarkably realistic older sister: She and Catherine bicker like estranged family. Lynskey is sharp as a card's edge, flipping seamlessly back and forth between caring and "just do as I say because I'm older and wiser" attitudes. Oh, and not only does Claire think Catherine might have inherited more than just her father's brilliance, Catherine might think so too.

Carpenter turns in a similarly tight performance as the ambiguously intentioned Hal. One of Robert's students, Hal has stalled in his own work. Hal is going through Robert's notebooks to see if the man made any last contributions to math; the fact that he's unpublished and claims he likes Catherine keeps striking her as false, unfortunately for Hal.

Finally there's Rudko, whose portrayal of a man sliding into dementia is chillingly brutal.

As Hal and Claire vie for Catherine's attention, she finally drops a revelation that blows them, as well as the audience, away.

Notably, Proof touches on the role of women in mathematics. A traditionally male dominated field where the stars peak at 23, this cutthroat competition is the source of one scathing attack by Catherine about Hal being over the hill.

Proof covers a lot of ground, but maintains consistency in its utterly human dialogue. After a depressed Catherine sleeps for days on end, for instance, Claire tries to make her sound unbalanced. "You were completely out of it, you didn't say anything." "I didn't want to talk to you," Catherine explains.

Proof is also aided by Michael Brown's fantastic set: The broken down house, surrounded by a backdrop of skewed academia (chairs stacked at odd angles, semi-erased chalkboard writing) gives the perfect impression of troubled genius. The little details stand out, from the unused bike in the corner to the seemingly randomly but actually perfect system of prime numbers. Allen Lee Hughes lighting design is also wonderfully evocative of the different times.

Proof's only drawbacks are a slow opening, as Auburn sets all the characters in motion, and the sometimes static nature of a dialogue-driven play.

Aside from those minor concerns, Director Wendy Goldberg does a stellar job punctuating the tension and emotional buildup with frenetic, shocking outbursts (a lot of shouting, mostly) and an assembly line of wickedly funny jokes, making Proof an excellent and enjoyable play.

Proof is showing at Arena Stage through November 23, 2003. Tickets are upwards of $35. However, lucky for students, people aged 5 through 25 can buy $10 tickets until 5:25 the day of the performance.

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