One would not initially think that advanced Mathematics involving mind-numbingly complex formulas would be a ‘prime’ subject for riveting theatre. And then we are usually surprised at our close-mindedness (recall Chess and Spelling Bees). So, even if thoughts of high school calculus make you cringe, and words like quadratic, derivative and exponential polynomial make your eyes glaze over, fear not. Advance prep and number 2 pencils are not required to enjoy the bravura performance of “Proof” at Olney Theatre Center.
The show revolves around an examination of Catherine, a young, troubled math student as she deals with a swirl of life issues following the death of her brilliant father who she has painfully watched drifting in and out of mental illness for several years. But at its heart the show is all human–it is about belief and trust.
David Auburn’s four-character play, which wowed Broadway en route to winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, is completely set in the backyard of a fading, nondescript brick rambler, which helps set the focus–not on institutional trappings, but lofty logic right in the midst of suburbia and everyday life struggles. In fact, it is more about human chemistry than math, and even with several ‘Big Bang Theory’ moments, no mind-numbing equations are foisted on us, save for the math equations cleverly plastered across the set wall, (courtesy of set designer Luciana Stecconi) hinting at the complexities of this man-made discipline that releases and sometimes tortures the creative mind.
Back to Catherine, played by area talent Dawn Ursula, who creates an inherently believable woman who is unsettled after her father Robert’s death and is coming out of a dormant state in her life, and has to face things really quick. Catherine relinquished her own academic studies in the field to care for Robert, and now is in life limbo.
Her winning turn is the driving force between soap and substance in the show.
The opening scene in this quite well-crafted show is of a hapless, slovenly Catherine, chatting with her father Robert, on all things life and sanity and dinner plans, as it is her birthday. Olney veteran and regional actor Craig Wallace is the celebrated University of Chicago mathematician who, with easy charm and a disarming melodious voice, parries with her, close to the edge of sanity. We are then jolted into her confused world as we realize that it is a dream–and she must deal with life post dad.
Added to the mix is math grad student Hal, (an able and earnest Biko Eisen-Martin) one of Robert’s former students, who has been vainly sifting through scores of scribbled notebooks to see whether he conceived of anything significant during his lengthy illness.
Robert’s elder daughter, Claire (Aakhu Freeman) who arrives from New York for the funeral, fears that the sadly withdrawn Catherine may have inherited her father’s mental instability, as well as some of his genius, and urges her sister to return with her for therapy. Catherine and Claire are classic sisterly opposites. The New York touting Claire is about schedules and results, with a successful career in ‘functional math’ – statistics and analytics. Freeman’s maddeningly checklist attitude has nice cracks of humanity in dealing with a situation with no real answers.
Hal and Catherine soon get romantically involved, in love scenes that are brief and spontaneous, though overall not terribly bad for math nerds. This adds to the complications, as Catherine later shares a special revolutionary ‘Proof’ or mathematical treatise that is locked away in the house. As she defiantly proclaims “I didn’t find the book, I wrote it.” Can Catherine prove the Proof’s authorship? Or has the sickness of the father been passed down?
Ursula’s Catherine brings a big dose of attitude and is believable either vibrant or distraught, as she contends with her violently fluctuating emotions. Her winning turn is the driving force between soap and substance in the show.
Director Timothy Douglas has remained true to the basic pacing of the show and has created artistic elements in the small touches. Set design and construction by Luciana Stecconi made me feel like I was in someone’s backyard listening to the crickets. And the casting of an all black ensemble added perspective without making an unnecessary statement.
Finally, the insight in describing how to work theoretical problems was a revelation and a credit to both the playwright and the actors. It is described in human tactical terms. Catherine said that her father used to oftentimes take on a math challenge from the side, chipping away from the periphery. And when talking about her work, Catherine says that her mathematical thought process is ‘stitched up and lumpy’ while her father’s work is ‘smooth and elegant.’ There is beauty in details such as these.
Although the play’s conclusion may seem uneventful, what happens beforehand leaves us in awe, as brilliant people contend with their fears, conformity and yes, of madness. A must see.
Advisory: Adult language.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
“Proof” is presented at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD, from May 17 – June 18, 2107. For tickets to this or other performances in the 2017 season, call the Box Office at 301-924-3400 or online.