I envy people who are about to see David Auburn’s “Proof” for the first time. This smart and engrossing 2001 play, which captivated Broadway audiences (and won the Pulitzer Prize and best-play Tony Award) with its tale of high-level mathematics and debilitating mental illness, is masterfully constructed. On subsequent viewings of “Proof,” it probably isn’t possible to replicate the tension and surprise of the first go around. But while I’ve seen it several times, I find myself still admiring the way Auburn manages to mash together a nerdy, numbers-oriented mystery plot together with a moving portrayal of father-daughter interdependence and liability.
I have some mixed thoughts and reactions after viewing the new Good Company Players production at the 2nd Space Theatre:
The relationships: Integral to “Proof” are the connections between Catherine (Bailey Johnson), the 20-something protagonist, and the three other characters in the play. Robert (Gordon Moore), her father, was a famous and troubled mathematician. (You find out very early in the play how he ended up.) Catherine, who is justly proud of her talented dad, has also worried for most of her adult life about his mental stability. It’s more than just a feeling of filial responsibility: She’s concerned that she, too, might have inherited the same tendencies. Catherine’s relationship with her much more together sister, Claire (Marikah Christine Leal), is more fraught. Claire has left Chicago, where their father taught and did his research, to make a notable life for herself in New York. Catherine feels diminished by comparison. And, finally, there’s Hal, a graduate student of Robert’s, who brings his own baggage to the proceedings: He wants to honor his mentor’s genius, but his own stalled career brings out conflicted feelings.
The acting: I did not, unfortunately, warm much to Johnson’s performance in this demanding role. The script calls for the character to be distant (and almost unresponsive) at times, plunged into her own fear and despair, but she also has to convey such disparate layers as anger, flirtatiousness, lust, stubborness and superiority. (Catherine mocks the insular world of mathematicians in academia.) Johnson is earnest and well-prepared, and I think she has some nice moments, but director Denise Graziani isn’t able to guide her to great things here.
The supporting roles: Moore, a GCP veteran, gives a stirring performance. I was very impressed with Serpa, who brings a low-key affability to Hal but then finds a pulse-racing edge to the character later on. And Leal is very adept, finding a brittle antagonism but also genuine sisterly affection in Claire.
The direction: It isn’t the strongest I’ve seen from Graziani. The final first-act revelation is meant to be a shocker, but it just sort of slid by at the second-weekend performance I attended. (Every second leading up to that reveal should be carefully played for maximum impact.) And I think that Johnson needed a firmer hand in finding the nuances of her character. What I did like, however, was the way the father-daughter relationship plays out on stage. I truly felt Catherine’s conflicted feelings of entrapment but also pride at taking care of her father.
The creative team: Evan Commins’ lighting design is moody and compelling, including the illuminated math formulas he throws onto David Pierce’s atmospheric Chicago row-house exterior set. And Teresa A. Castillo’s costumes help set the scene.
My thoughts on the script: At the end, I found myself musing if the playwright could have gotten away with offering just a touch more ambiguity. Yes, the play is fundamentally clever, but after this production, I’m more likely to say that “Proof” didn’t have to solve its own proof so neatly or definitively, I guess you could say.
The takeaway: If you’ve never seen “Proof,” you owe it to yourself to see a live production. (And you don’t need to be a math major to appreciate it.) If this is a second (or fifth or sixth) viewing, it’s still a great story, but I’m not sure you need to solve that equation again.
“Proof,” through Aug. 12, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. Tickets are $20 general, $17 students and seniors, $12 student rush.
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