By Bill Hirschman
Genius and madness. Concrete calculations and unbridled theorizing. Humor and sorrow. But the greatest mysteries depicted in Proof reside in the human heart, conflicts on display that are hard to encapsulate in Actors’ Playhouse’s intriguing and satisfying production.
Indeed, you’ll be able to argue in the car for hours what the precise themes and messages are, although, perhaps, that may be part of one overall theme itself: There is no predictable mathematical-level proof in life about much of anything, but that doesn’t undercut the magic of it.
The reason some people love dealing with numbers, folks like scientists and social misfits, is that they are precise and reliable. Two plus two never makes seventy-three. Best of all, if you make a mistake adding a column of figures, you can find the error and correct it. Dealing with people, on the other hand, is messy. Human relationships are unpredictable, tricky to decipher and very difficult to correct.
Such is another of the underlying themes of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Although set in the milieu of mathematical theorists exploring the abstract mysteries of science, the real truth-seeking is the audience-accessible but far murkier mysteries of the heart.
Auburn’s script, as elegant as the mathematical MacGuffin at the center of the play, includes flashbacks, fake outs and a plot reveal that upends the play in progress. So we have to tiptoe to avoid spoilers.
Catherine (Jessica Sanford) is a 25-year-old collegian in Chicago whose recent past has been commandeered caring for her beloved father, Robert (Michael McKenzie) a legendary math theorist. A genius who had changed the world of mathematics three times by his late 20s, Robert languished in dementia for the past four years except for one interlude of lucidity.
But Catherine, initially seeming like an ordinary if depressed aimless young woman, has/had shown great promise in the field. “You knew what a prime number was before you could read,” her father tells her.
The two open the play with Robert trying to coax a good mood out of his beloved daughter on this, her birthday. But in fact, (the first spoiler alert), Robert has just died and we suddenly realize that this is a sort of hallucination.
His death leaves the socially-awkward and prickly-on-her-good-days Catherine in a crippling depression. Running beneath her grief is the terror that she has not only inherited her father’s preternatural intellect but the seeds of his insanity as well.
Certainly, that’s the suspicion of her paternalistic sister, Claire (Stephanie White) who has jetted in from her job as a financial analyst. Claire wants to bring her back to Manhattan where Catherine can resume a life and, perhaps, get some serious psychiatric care.
Enter Hal (Daniel Llaca), a genial and attractive math nerd. The former doctoral candidate under Robert is upstairs in the family’s deteriorating suburban home, rummaging through Robert’s insane musings in a hundred notebooks, looking for a scientific Holy Grail.
And then Catherine tells him where to find one upstairs, turning everything inside out.
While the entire evening chugs along smoothly under David Arisco’s capable hand, it slingshots to a higher level in the second to last scene. In the flashback, the father has emerged from insanity for a few months and tells Catherine he is transfixed by the sudden return of his ability to reason out ground-breaking math theory.
Robert comes alive with the fierce passion that can only be aroused in creative minds when they are engorged with the power of ideas snapping like electricity arcing across synapses. Catherine’s face is transfixed with hope that her father is completely well again and emotionally fulfilled – and not coincidentally freeing her to pursue her own education and future as a math theorist. It underscores how the most passionate moments of this play, intentionally, are when the mathematicians are talking about their work. And then, another turn of the plot….
This précis fails to do justice to the web of relationships among living and dead people deft at negotiating intellectual obstacles in their professional lives, but who clumsily stumble and scrape each other’s raw nerve endings in their personal dealings.
The narrative arc is these people’s struggle to emerge from their world of the mind and make genuine emotional contact. The sole weakness of the script, if there is one, is that everyone doubts Catherine’s ability to fulfill her potential.
Sanford has been impressing audiences for a decade since her bow as the daughter in Zoetic Stage’s Fear Up Harsh for Zoetic Stage with notable turns as varied as the female half of Bonnie & Clyde for Slow Burn Theater Company and the young nun in American Playhouse’s Doubt.
But here she becomes a perfect fit as a troubled, whip-smart and eventually quite likable young woman with a mixture of high intelligence and fragile wounded interior. When Catherine slips into brief spurts of genius, Sanford makes it completely believable that there is someone of emotional and intellectual worth buried beneath this tightly-wound surface.
Llaca makes a delightful not-quite-a-nerd trying to negotiate real life including his attraction for Catherine and being equally in love with the prospect that her father might have left a mathematical treasure. He makes Hal credible as someone who is smarter than any of us in the room and who dearly loves his field, but who knows deep down that he will never be a world-famous success.
White succeeds walking the tightrope between someone who cares for her sister, but who lives in a different more practical world.
McKenzie, a veteran memorable in GableStage’s The Price, injects the intentionally muted evening with its lifeblood in Catherine’s precious memories of a vibrant, witty, loving personality. He gives us a charming three-dimensional character who seems as normal as the guy you borrowed the lawnmower from, and yet whose brilliance is/was dazzling.
Arisco has smoothly, almost invisibly constructed the evening. He has molded this cast into that devastatingly emotional 11th-hour scene that defines heart-breaking.
A tip of the hat, presumably due sound designer Alex “BT” Bonilla who covers the scene changes with digitized piano interludes that reflect everything from a well-ordered sonata to a scattered jazz-like tinkling of music coming apart.
In the end, presumably again, the intermingling of science and emotion seem to assure us that relationships – messy and painful – are essentials elements, indeed proof, of life itself.
Actors’ Playhouse’s production of Proof continues through June 4 at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. on Sundays. Running time 2 hours 15 minutes including one intermission. Ticket prices range from $40 to $125. The theater offers 10 percent off all weekday performances for seniors and $15 student rush tickets to any performance 15 minutes prior to curtain with identification, For tickets, call((305) 444-9293 or go to www.actorsplayhouse.org.