Proof Positive

One of the most extraordinary aspects of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof is the way the script weaves real whodunit suspense into the complex geometry of family drama. The family in question is composed of two daughters dealing with the recent death of their father. Fear, grief, guilt -- all the usual suspects -- give shape to these women's emotional lives. But their pain is multiplied exponentially by the fact that their father was both a mathematical genius and a man who ended up crippled by mental illness. It's a tender story given shape by Auburn's ability to create a surprisingly powerful mystery out of the complexities of familial history and the magic of ivory-tower math. And as played out by the fine cast at the Alley Theatre, this is a story that will likely stay with everyone who enters its labyrinth of questions and possibilities.

The drama focuses primarily on Catherine (Elizabeth Bunch), the child who's stayed home the past several years to care for her dad on her own. We meet her first, as she sits on her Chicago porch late at night. She's talking to her father, Robert (John Tyson), who's trying to reassure her that she won't go crazy like he did. It's Catherine's 25th birthday, and Robert began to lose his mental stability around that age.

Of course, neither Catherine nor the audience feels much confidence in her mental health when we realize that she's holding a conversation with a man who's been dead for a week. We learn this because Robert says simply, "I'm dead...The funeral's tomorrow." With this moment, we realize that the conversation between father and daughter is a construction of Catherine's imagination. And maybe she really is crazy. But, of course, talking to the dead is not necessarily a sign of mental illness. This tender conversation could simply mean that Catherine is grieving her loss, like any healthy person would at her father's demise. Still, doubt is spun so exquisitely into the moment that we can't help but wonder at her reliability.

The question of Catherine's reliability comes up again and again throughout the play and becomes the ultimate focus of the plot when a groundbreaking mathematical proof is discovered among her father's effects. Catherine claims that she wrote it, but nobody, least of all her sister, who arrives for the funeral, believes that the young, unschooled woman could have produced such a thing.

The story is further complicated by a romance that sparks between Catherine and Hal (Chris Hutchison), one of Robert's ex-students. Hal is busy noodling around in Robert's study, looking for anything important the genius might have left behind. In addition to hearing voices, Robert was a "graphomaniac" who filled "103 notebooks" with what Catherine calls gibberish. But Hal wants to make sure nothing of potential import is overlooked. And he assumes Catherine isn't sophisticated enough to be able to recognize the good stuff. Despite his condescension, the two have clear chemistry, even when they're fighting.

Into all of this flies Catherine's buttoned-up sister, Claire (Robin Terry). Terrified of her father's madness, Claire left Chicago for New York years ago and has returned only to sell the house and gather up her younger sister. Of course, Catherine doesn't want to go to New York with Claire. But the decision must be made in a matter of days. When the mysterious proof is discovered in Robert's desk, all hell breaks loose, and nobody, including the audience, knows whom to trust.

This powerful story works on multiple levels, all of which are developed with care, humor and deep tenderness in the Alley production. The dilapidated backyard of Robert's old brick house is made achingly real by designer Kevin Rigdon; the building looks faded and worn, and small details such as grimy curtains and rusted lawn chairs deepen the air of grief.

The cast of four shines under James Black's elegantly understated direction. Terry brings the pinched character of Claire to life and makes us feel for her even if we don't exactly like her. And Hutchison's lanky Hal is charming -- awkwardly well intentioned, very funny and lovable -- despite his inability to believe in Catherine. The usually comedic Tyson brings enormous heart to the production, and he makes us swoon with sadness for Robert's broken mind. And at the center of all this is the breathtakingly lovely Bunch, who shows us a woman whose intelligence is surpassed only by her ability to rage and to love and to grieve.

Aside from the stellar cast, what's best about the play is its rare combination of deep, intelligent soulfulness and the ability to keep the audience guessing all the way through. Proof is a rare gem of theatricality.