Everyman Theatre opens its 2019/2020 season with “Proof,” the Pulitzer-prize winning play from David Auburn. First produced by the company in 2004, artistic director Vincent M. Lancisi described that production as one of the company’s earliest hits in his opening remarks. The current production’s fine cast does full justice to the quietly surprising play.
Auburn’s twisty story, full of small upsets and gasp-worthy revelations, is a bit of a spoiler trap. Suffice it to say that the story opens on a porch, on a birthday; Catherine’s (Cathy’s) birthday specifically, which she celebrates with her father, Robert. A famous and prolific mathematician, Robert makes it clear that he wants more for Catherine, and believes her to have prodigious talent in the mathematics field. The story tracks forward, as Catherine prepares for the funeral of her father, who we learn has died after a long battle with psychosis.
This production’s fine cast does full justice to the quietly surprising play.
An enigmatic character, Catherine gradually reveals herself through her interactions with others, the first being Hal, a mathematician and former advisee of Robert’s at his university in Chicago. Hal is easy and upbeat with a grieving Catherine, and just slightly condescending as he mansplains her father’s achievements.
Hal convinced that her father was capable of producing mathematical greatness, even during what we learn was a five-year illness, has been reviewing Robert’s journals in the hopes of finding some of his work. Catherine’s distrust of Hal’s motives is established in an early scene, made tensely exciting by her suspicion and the clear chemistry between the characters.
While Auburn’s story investigates some large questions, especially regarding the nature of genius, Daniel Ettinger’s set design reminds us that it’s also a domestic drama. The Middle-American house front is made cleverly transparent, allowing for ghostly figures to appear and disappear in the interior of the house, manifesting visually the story’s sense of mystery. Catherine’s love for the home is echoed through Martha Mountain’s warm lighting design.
Catherine finds her residency in that house, and in Chicago, threatened with the arrival of her older sister, Claire, a whirlwind who comes in from New York City for their father’s funeral. Megan Anderson is perfectly cast as the anxiously well-meaning type-A (Anderson played Catherine in Everyman’s 2004 production). Claire immediately throws herself into the role of managing her younger sister, an opportunity that Catherine, who we learn has been their father’s caretaker for the duration of his illness, resists but does not outright reject. A study in opposites, their sisterly banter produces some of the best lines of the show, especially underlining Claire’s determined optimism. “It’s a funeral, but we don’t have to be completely grim about it,” she declares.
Auburn’s tightly plotted story metes out emotional and factual reveals at a perfect pace. A discovery regarding what could be a long-lost proof by Robert calls into question Catherine’s own abilities, made more fraught by the doubt, and perceived academic gate-keeping, on the part of Hal.
Katie Kleiger gives Catherine a grounded, somber energy. In a subtle performance, she communicates the many shades of a complex woman, at a complex time in her life. Jeremy Keith Hunter’s playful incarnation of Hal is a nicely pitched counterpoint to Catherine; his affectionate mugging for her enjoyment provide moments of levity and help set the stage for a fine romance.
Catherine’s scenes with her father, some of which flashback to his illness, are the emotional centerpieces of the show. Bruce Randolph Nelson is excellent as Robert, nicely embodying the fragile genius. His love for, and belief in, his younger daughter is moving: “Maybe you’ll pick up where I left off,” he tells her.
As might be expected of a play full of ellipses and double-backs, the story’s end is actually a beginning for Catherine. It’s a neat finish for the story and a great start for Everyman’s season.
Running Time: About 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
“Proof” runs through Oct. 6 at Everyman Theatre. For tickets or more information, click here.