‘Proof’ proves its staying power

 

A father and daughter are bound by math and madness in David Auburn’s Pulitzer winner.

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Photo: Alicia Donelan
 

By Christine Dolen

In David Auburn’s Proof, a dad and daughter share a home, a professional passion and, just maybe, something far more worrisome. Both are mathematicians, he a professor, she a student who has clearly inherited his gifts and intelligence. But is she also headed toward the kind of mental instability that derailed her father’s brilliant career?

Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, Proof is a smart, absorbing, moving play about family, loyalty, love and sacrifice. Math is what the four characters do. But it’s what they do to each other, in a beautifully crafted drama that slips back and forth in time, that won Auburn drama’s top prize.

Proof has been staged in South Florida several times, most notably a decade ago at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in a production directed by the playwright, then in 2004 at Plantation’s Mosaic Theatre. Palm Beach Dramaworks producing artistic director William Hayes is now sharing his take on Proof with his company’s audiences.

As with each of Dramaworks’ shows in its new Don & Ann Brown Theatre, Proof begins working its magic even before the house lights go down. Set designer Michael Amico inaugurated the space with a richly detailed, period-perfect house and backyard for Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. For Proof, he has created another, smaller home whose details suggest an orderliness that eludes its suffering owner. A rusted metal chair and equally deteriorating glider sit on the deck of the modest house near the University of Chicago campus. The window of an attic bedroom juts out from the roof, overlooking a picnic table and a neatly kept yard.

The look is of a piece with the way the play’s famous math professor, Robert (Kenneth Kay), presents himself. Dressed in autumnal colors, Robert looks every inch the well put together academician in the outfits costume designer Erin Amico has chosen for him. But looks, just like Robert’s very presence, can be deceiving.

Surprises are carefully laced throughout the script, and if you’ve never seen Proof, you deserve to experience them in the moment. What can be said is that Auburn artfully explores the toll that Robert’s mental instability takes on his younger daughter Catherine (Katherine Michelle Tanner), a socially awkward, sometimes depressed young woman who wants to follow the same career path. Catherine’s elder sister Claire (Sarah Grace Wilson), a successful currency analyst in New York, has provided financial support during Robert’s prolonged period of instability. But it is Catherine – the caregiver, the constant, the witness to her father’s pain – who makes the greater sacrifice.

Hal (Cliff Burgess), a young mathematician whose doctoral work was supervised by Robert, arrives as a life-changing possibility for Catherine. Yet his skepticism about the depth of Catherine’s talent, a doubt shared by Claire, may prove life-crushing instead.

Under Hayes’ guidance, the Dramaworks cast delivers a Proof with slightly softer edges than actors sometimes bring to the piece. Tanner doesn’t seem so much like a girl teetering on the edge of a possible breakdown; instead, she’s a young woman worn down by dreams and possibilities that are routinely dashed. Kay’s charming Robert exudes professorial command and charm, which makes a critical scene later in the play all the more chilling. Burgess is an affable Hal, maybe not quite as baldly ambitious as the character can be, but a math geek version of a knight in shining armor. Wilson’s fussy, prickly Claire is the just-right embodiment of a control freak who can’t cope with human unpredictability.

Auburn, whose The Columnist is currently on Broadway, had his first major success with Proof. The new Dramaworks production serves as proof of the play’s enduring power.

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