Out of the mysterious variables of love comes David Auburn's Proof, a stunning script that has garnered both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award since its 2000 premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City. It has since moved on to Broadway, with Jennifer Jason Leigh in the starring role. Happily, its success has also merited a national tour that's landed at the Wortham Center.
Like Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind, Auburn's well-crafted play focuses on what he calls the "connection between extremely prodigious mathematical ability and craziness." But the play shouldn't be confused with the lesser filmic take on mad genius. Proof is also about the powerful connections between a parent and his child and the terror that such ties can inspire. The heady and moving material is wrapped up in a spellbinding plot about a groundbreaking mathematical proof and a brilliant young woman's coming of age.
We first meet Catherine (Chelsea Altman) on the eve of her 25th birthday. Lounging on the wide back porch of her father's dilapidated, brown brick house in Chicago, a down-in-the-dumps Catherine guzzles cheap champagne from the bottle and trades good-natured barbs with her frowzy, professorial dad. He worries that she's not doing anything with her life: "You sleep till noon, you eat junk, you don't work...some days you don't get out of bed." It isn't long before we discover that Catherine's got more on her mind than birthday blues.
Wortham Center's Cullen Theatre, 501 Texas Avenue
Through January 13; 713-629-3700. $54-$58
In the first place, Robert (Robert Foxworth), her dear old dad, whom Catherine's been tending for the last five years, is actually dead. The funeral's tomorrow. But grief is not the only catalyst for Catherine's depression; at the black bottom of it is fear. Dad was a prodigy, a math genius, until his mid-twenties when his brilliant mind was consumed by psychosis. Catherine recalls with chilling clarity the stacks of books she brought home so that he could read the messages aliens were sending him via the Dewey Decimal system. Now Catherine -- also in her mid-twenties, also very good at math -- is terrified that she'll turn out to be as "nuts" as her old man.
To complicate matters further, Catherine's thoroughly unimaginative older sister Claire (Tasha Lawrence) shows up to fix things. And her father's protégé, Hal (Stephen Kunken), is busily going though Robert's notebooks, looking for any nugget of brilliance, or just sanity, that might be buried there.
The setup is frighteningly perfect: Claire believes Catherine has always been a bit "unstable," Hal has a crush on her, and nobody knows the extent of Catherine's mathematical gift. Thus, when a notebook containing a breakthrough proof is found among Robert's things, a series of events unfolds that confounds every expectation. The plot unravels with whodunit precision as the characters look for their own kinds of proof. And the story grows increasingly heartbreaking as it digs into a dreadful landscape sowed with the seeds of familial love.
The performances from this formidable cast do much to celebrate the depth of Auburn's play. Altman's long and lanky Catherine stalks the stage like a lovely mad scientist -- her blond hair poking out in frizzy Einstein tufts, her delivery pocked with dry wit and rage. She's all floppy knees in torn jeans until her sister puts her in a lean black dress and heels for the funeral. Then she stomps around with a funny, coltishly graceless beauty. Every bit the undiscovered genius, she is compelling for both her intelligence and her lone wolf strangeness.
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Lawrence's Claire, on the other hand, is the sister from Starbucks hell. Dressed in catalog-perfect clothes, she enters Catherine's life buttoned up with the precision of a "currency analyst," which is as far as her own mathematical gifts have taken her. Through a brittle, pink-lipped smile she murmurs with whispery ease about the doctors (read: shrinks) she'd like Catherine to see once she moves her little sister to New York City. Claire is all good intentions, but they're the kind that kill.
Thankfully, Hal is poking around upstairs. Full of his own math-whiz, backpack-toting weirdness, Kunken's Hal is likable for the sincere schoolboy way he grins at Catherine even though she's about as lovable as a cactus. But Hal is no knight in shining armor, and Kunken handles his eventual doltishness with such honesty that the nerd becomes the most unpredictable character in this tale.
Slipping around the edges of the play, in flashbacks and in Catherine's imagination, is Robert. Played by the silver-haired Robert Foxworth, he becomes the warm though completely broken heart at the center of the story. One of the playwright's most insightful strategies is to show us what Robert was like when he was struggling to stay sane. With grace and dignity, Foxworth tiptoes the fine thread of unimaginable loneliness that must lie between sanity and madness. It's easy to believe that he was once a genius and even easier to understand why his daughter would give up her dreams of college and a career to care for him.
Controlling all this energetic intelligence is director Daniel Sullivan, who guides the production with such assurance that his presence is invisible. Proof is a realistic drama, with momentary flights of fancy, and Sullivan brings these two worlds together seamlessly. It's often difficult to tell what is real and what isn't in this world the director has created. And that is precisely the point behind Auburn's elegant Proof.