By Karen Isaacs
Proof by David Auburn won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony in 2001. It is now getting a nice production at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park through Feb. 8
The play is at heart a family drama with touches of a mystery in it. The mystery involves mathematics — who wrote the extraordinarily creative and ground breaking proof that is found in a notebook in the home of a recently deceased mathematician?
The answer is not as simple as it seems. For the mathematician, Robert, did his best work as a young man and spent the better part of the last decade slipping in and out of madness. But who else could have done it?
For that, we must go back to the family drama. The play opens with Catherine, Robert’s 25-year-old daughter sharing a late night visit with her recently deceased Dad. We learn a lot of information: Catherine has put her life on hold and spent the last years caring for her father, dropping out of school. She too has extraordinary mathematical prowess. In the following scenes in act one, we meet Hal, a former doctoral student of Robert’s who is now in the house going through dozens of black composition books in which Robert scribbled endlessly. We also meet Claire, Catherine’s older sister, who while providing financial support has pursued her life in New York City. She is the “take charge” type and soon is telling Catherine what she should do, including move to New York. By the end of the act, Catherine and Hal have become lovers but the next morning when he discovers a notebook with an elegant proof, he refuses to believe Catherine’s statement that she wrote it because “she doesn’t have the math” to have done it.
In act two, there are two flashback scenes; in the first we have Catherine announcing her intention to return to school to study math. From there we see the continuation of the conversation about the proof between Catherine, Claire and Hal. The next morning, Hal attempts to make amends to Catherine but Claire stops him though she does give him the notebook. After a touching flashback scene to the last time Robert slipped from sanity to insanity, the play ends and since there is some mystery involved, I won’t share the ending.
Catherine is a difficult role — she is a young woman who has spent the last four plus years devoted to caring for her father and seeing his insanity destroy his mind. She is depressed and unsure what to do next and she fears that while inheriting her father’s mathematical brilliance she may also have inherited his mental instability. The actress playing the role must balance the anger, fear, sadness in a well-rounded performance. Dana Brooke makes a valiant effort but her performance seems overly angry.
Claire is also a difficult role — she is the organized, officious and all-knowing older sister who seems to lack any real understanding of why her sister made the choices she did. After all, Claire would have institutionalized Robert. Melissa Macleod Herion does a good job with the role; at times you want to slap her which is what the author intended.
As the two men, Damian Buzzerio plays Robert in a way that makes you want to weep for him. He shows us, in his few scenes a fully realized character.
As Harold, the young math professor, Marty Scanlon also shows us a multi-dimensional character. Harold is aware that his talent will never set the world afire — he had difficulty with his dissertation and his current research is continually rejected. But he has difficulty imaging that Catherine could have such talent. He is torn between his mind and what thinks is logical and his heart, for he is attracted to Catherine.
Christopher Hoyt has created an attractive set though I thought the house looked a little too dilapidated and could have reached further onto the stage. He left a very large playing area in front that at times pulled us away from the closeness of the family drama.
Credit must be given to director Dawn Loveland who had a clear vision of the play and made sure that all the actors carried through on this vision.
If you have never seen Proof, which I find a fascinating play, this is a production to see. You don’t have to understand math to understand the multiple family dynamics. It runs through Feb. 8 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd, West Hartford. For tickets call 860-523-5900 ext. 10 or playhouseonpark.org.