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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 503-504
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Proof. By David Auburn. Manhattan Theatre Club, Walter Kerr Theatre, New York. 25 March 2001.
Broadway has been surprisingly hospitable of late to theatrical exploration of some daunting subjects--among them nuclear physics (Michael Frayn's Copenhagen) and classical philology and the Aesthetic movement (Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love). What is remarkable about David Auburn's play--winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize--is that its provocative exploration of its intellectual territory (mathematics) is always subordinate to the characters it serves. The embattled quartet onstage in the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of Proof--especially its brilliant, defensive, and combative heroine--made for exhilarating company.
The remarkably deft exposition of the opening scene is typical of the play's poise and wit: Catherine (Mary-Louise Parker) dozes on the slightly disheveled back porch of her family's Chicago home. Her father startles her awake and bestows upon her a twenty-fifth birthday present: a bottle of Wisconsin's finest champagne--the worst, Catherine says, she has ever tasted. Swiftly but unobtrusively, the characters reveal the basic facts: Catherine has been caring for her father for years, a celebrated but mentally fragile University of Chicago math professor. Pointed banter belies the mix of admiration Robert has for his daughter's abilities and his frustration at her squandering them. More unsettling is the fact that Robert, in fact, has been dead a week and thus Catherine has been having a lengthy conversation with a ghost. Catherine admits that this is "a bad sign," that she is very much her father's daughter: a volatile but symbiotic mix of cerebral agility and emotional instability. Robert leaves the stage, passing unseen by his protégé Hal, who asks Catherine why she's drinking champagne alone.
Hal, a young professor whose doctoral work Robert guided, has been reading the myriad notebooks the late professor obsessively filled during his illness. Looking for any further contributions to the field, Hal finds instead page after page of incoherent scribbling, including an attempt to decode messages expressed, Robert felt, in the call numbers for library books that lined the walls of his study. But Catherine reveals one notebook Hal has overlooked: it contains a revolutionary proof that solves a problem mathematicians have been struggling with for centuries. In a stunning curtain line closing the first act, Catherine claims that the proof is not a final, brilliant efflorescence of her father's deteriorating intellect but in fact something she wrote herself.
Complicating the matters is the arrival of Claire, who attempts to comfort and help her sister. While Catherine stayed home to care alone for their father, money for necessities (including mortgage payments on their aging home) has come from Claire, who worked in New York. Shared guilt, resentment, and fears about Catherine's mental health underlie the alternately loving and prickly exchanges between the sisters, exchanges that amuse without devolving into pat mechanical sitcom banter. Claire urges her sister to return with her to New York--an invitation that Catherine [End Page 503] rejects as patronizing confirmation of her sister's belated interference and insensitivity.
Poised, graceful, and moving, Proof was satisfyingly mounted. John Lee Beatty's understated set evoked at once familial comfort (a porch strewn with lawn chairs, an Oriental rug visible behind French doors) and its vulnerability to the depredations of time and illness (sallow yellow brick, a disused barbecue grill, gutters choked with leaves). Daniel Sullivan coaxed nuanced performances from his ensemble. Larry Bryggman (Robert) was by turns sardonic, eloquent, loving, and needy. Although the character appears only intermittently, Bryggman made his ongoing impact palpable. Johanna Day adeptly evoked the anxieties and hurt roiling beneath Claire's cheery solicitude, and Ben Shenkman (Hal) was drolly self-deprecating as Catherine's friend and, later, lover.
Parker as Catherine was initially off-putting; her nasal drawl (not particularly Chicagoan) and idiosyncratic line readings made me feel at first that Parker hardly seemed a member of the same production as her castmates, or her character from the same family as the more patrician...