The Proof Is In ‘Proof’
How do you separate mental illness from mathematical genius when the illness may be the fuel to genius? How can a caregiver “prove” self-worth when surrounded by scientists whose varying works is proof and very essence of life is work? These are just a couple of the questions David Auburn’s Proof explores. The play won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and The Tony for Best Play in 2001. By 2002, Proof was the most widely produced play in the U.S. followed by a film version produced in 2005 starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Sir Anthony Hopkins. All the World’s a Stage, in residence at Chaminade University’s Loo Theatre, is a fitting setting for this production by being nestled in a university campus with strong actors of intellectual backgrounds. This is an intimate theatre piece with complex nuances placed in an intimate theatre with limited seating.
Proof is set near University of Chicago in September, 2001, a crucial time in Catherine’s (Rachael Uyeno) young life where she faces many choices, some of which are thrust upon her by the other characters. She grabbles with fear of becoming like her father, Robert (Paul Mitri), a world-renowned mathematical genius struggling with mental illness, the one person who pushes her, encourages her and believes in her. His connection to his work still demands she prove herself in her own work. Caregiving is not enough nor valued. Meanwhile, she makes a connection with one of her father’s former Ph.D. students, Hal (Alex Munro) only to find herself trying to prove her intellectual ability in a man’s profession. Her years of being her father’s caregiver have taken its toll with depression and isolation. That toll is apparent to her sister Claire (Hannah Schauer Galli) who arrives from New York with plans for Catherine to prove her mental stability. In the end, there is hope that Catherine will find the strength to make her own decisions for her own life.
Proof is both a character piece and a strong story with twists and turns to captivate its audience. Auburn was inspired after reading the 1940 autobiography by mathematician G.H. Hardy who described the best validations of mathematical theories as incorporating “a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability…” Auburn found this as an equal guideline for drama.
All the Worlds a Stage’s production delivers the strong performances and delicate relationships necessary of this script. Uyeno portrays Catherine with a beautiful, subtle strength while maneuvering through intricate relationships and situations throughout. Mitri’s Robert is heart-wrenching, as it should be. His pivotal scene made me tear up. Don’t misinterpret Proof as a tear-jerking, sad drama, though. This piece has comedy in every scene and these actors found most of it. Auburn wrote for a sketch comedy group as an undergrad at the University of Chicago. He described “a certain, offbeat type of Hyde Park character” that UChicago was familiar with. Robert is modeled after these characters seen “wandering around in bookstores. Legends accrued around them – you’d hear stories of their incredible academic talent 30 years ago, before they slipped of the tracks. They’d still be haunting the neighborhood because this community both accommodates and shelters them.” Hal, portrayed by Munro is key to bringing Robert’s character to life through his admiration as well as some of the stereotypical aspects of mathematicians and scientists. Everything must be proved even at one’s own detriment at times. Munro found the subtle nuances in Hal that help to build the other characters while they individuality to depict a stereotype in a unique community with grace. Schauer Galli developed Claire into a caring sister, which is crucial, even when her actions could be seen as cruel. All of the actors successfully gave their characters and relationships depth in order to elicit empathy. This play if full of awkward moments and situations that demand variety in portrayal. Part of the challenge and enjoyment for the audience is to watch how these characters handle the awkwardness similar to what you would also see in an improv show. Hopefully, there will be subtle differences in performance every night.
The set was simplistic which draws the audience to focus on characters, relationships and story. The original Broadway set was a recreation of a home in Hyde Park. Subsequent productions have usually been a simplistic or abstract porch setting as in this production. The lighting and sound should be noted in this production. Lighting designer Thomas Galli’s use of a tree outline (gobo) really set the feel of the environment with a softness and the house party lighting was a nice surprise. The outside opening night reception included a large freestanding globe light probably used in television and film production. It was the first thing you saw exiting the theatre and its unusual size and shape supported the theme of innovation and pushing boundaries within the play. The sound design by John Gromada fit the piece beautifully; unfortunately, there were a couple of opening night mishaps with sound in Act 2 as are part of usual opening night kinks to work out. Overall, the play ran smoothly even with blackout transitions that were short and necessary for the passage of time within the play.
Part of the reason Proof has withheld the test of time, and will continue to, is because it is so thought-provoking. It tries to draw its audience into a unique academic environment and community of intellectuals without alienating them. It also explores difficult family relationships with issues of mental illness, depression, caregiving, sexism, intellectual superiority and the list goes on. As I exited the theatre, I overheard someone discussing the validity of the references of new math approaches in the play. Yes, Auburn had mathematicians review his script and it has been a vehicle for discussing sexism in the mathematical and scientific community among other things. This play appeals to a very wide audience. It is worth seeing not only for typical theatre goers, but people of a number of different walks of life.
Proof is playing through July 10th Fri, Sat 7:30pm, Sun 4pm at the Loo Theatre at Chaminade University. Tickets: $10-$20.
Laura Clark Greaver is a reviewer for Hitting the Stage. She is an actor, director, business owner and mom who is currently an MFA directing student at UH Manoa.