"Proof" by David Auburn, Portland Stage Company, Portland, Maine, USA (10/28 - 11/23/03)
"Proof" is the second full length play written by David Auburn. The play debuted off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, moved to the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway, toured nationally, and is now being adapted for film. "Proof" received the Joseph Kesselring Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Award, and the Tony Award for Best Play of 2001. Not half bad for a playwright in his late twenties detailing the private lives of wacky mathematicians.
First, allow me to get the "book report" out of the way. If you already know the basic outline or have seen another production, skip the next six paragraphs and start here where I move on to the actual review of this particular production of the play by Portland Stage Company.
"Proof" is a four character play. There's Robert, a mathematician who did brilliant, breakthrough, work in his youth, but whose later years were plagued by delusional mental illness. (Think John Nash whose life inspired "A Beautiful Mind.") He was cared for during those years by daughter Catherine, a young woman who inherited at least some of her father's mathematical genius and, she fears, his "instability" as well. That euphemism is offered by Robert's other daughter, Claire, who believes Catherine has indeed inherited both Dad's gift and his curse. Claire is a no nonsense, take charge, kinda gal who left Robert and Catherine behind in the run down family home on the edge of the Chicago University campus where Robert taught to make a life for herself in New York City. Harold "Hal" Dobbs fills out our quartet. Hal was one of Robert's last Ph.D. students during the one year his idol and mentor's illness went into remission, at least enabling Robert to teach, if not continue his own creative mathematical work.
The story unfolds on the back porch of the family's Chicago home. The first scene begins with a conversation between Robert and Catherine on the night of her twenty-fifth birthday. Catherine is fearing for her own state of mind. Dad offers solace with lines such as, "Crazy people don't ask if they're crazy. You're fine." Not until near the end of their witty and amusing repartee do we learn that Robert has just passed away. Hmmm, is Catherine certifiably delusional or merely engaged in an internal dialogue with a recently deceased loved one under the temporary influence of grief and too much cheap "champagne" from the vineyards of Wisconsin?
Next we meet Hal, who has taken on the project of wading through the vast number of notebooks written by Robert during his illness in hopes that, just maybe, in a moment of lucidity, his idol produced something of mathematical importance. Are his motives pure and honorable, driven by concern for Robert's reputation and the advancement of the field, or base and devious, looking for a nugget of intellectual gold to steal so that he can "write his own ticket" and escape the purgatory of decades spent teaching undergrads? We can also see that there is an attraction between Catherine and Hal. Is it genuine on Hal's part, or another ploy? Hal invites Catherine to come see his rock band's late night gig, they're all geeks, but some of them have even discovered contact lenses. And, they do original material about imaginary numbers. Catherine wavers, but wait, is that one of Dad's notebooks? Is Hal stealing it? Mayhem ensues.
The next morning the crisp and confident Claire serves Catherine coffee. ("How do you take your coffee?" "Black." "Have it with milk, it's good that way.") As the two talk we see their conflicting emotions and appreciate the universal complexity of familial love and resentments. Catherine gave up her formal education and social life, devoting herself to caring for Robert to enable him to retain a semblance of normal life. Claire footed the financial bill, compartmentalizing and separating her independent life in NYC from the family dysfunction in Chicago. Now that Robert is dead she's ready to sell the house and move Catherine to New York where she, too, can make a life. ("But I live here.") Oh, yes, and NYC has excellent doctors who can help Catherine with her "..instability."
As the first act continues, following Robert's funeral Hal and Catherine surrender to their attraction, slipping off to consummate their relationship while Claire learns never to try keeping pace when drinking with theoretical physicists. The following morning, as a token of her affection, Catherine offers Hal the key to a locked drawer in Robert's desk. It contains a notebook with a new proof in the area of prime numbers. The proof lacks the taut elegance of her father's early work, but it may nevertheless be a truly significant breakthrough. The shock comes when Catherine claims authorship of this "lumpy" proof.
The second act examines the ensuing conflicts, confusions and conundrums with a pair of flashbacks to fill in some of the pertinent details. Is Catherine the true heir to Robert's mathematical genius, his delusional illness, both? Is Hal genuinely falling in love with Catherine or cynically angling to steal whatever he can? Will Claire learn not to put milk in Catherine's coffee?
Bravo!!!! Portland Stage Company's production of "Proof" is a triumph, well deserving of the prolonged standing ovation bestowed by the opening night audience. Every aspect of the production was superbly crafted to bring David Auburn's award-winning script to life. The set, designed by PSC's Artistic Director, Anita Stewart (who also served as costume designer), was astounding. One could imagine that PSC had sliced off the porch, along with the back six feet of an actual brick house, and moved it from Chicago onto the stage. Except that the floor of the porch was raked toward the audience adding a subtly off kilter touch that echoed the slightly skewed realism of the play. Michael Reidy's lighting design was equally believable, evoking changes of time, and even temperature, without ever calling undue attention to itself. Piano music heard during the pre-set, intermission, and as between scenes underscoring was composed especially for this production by George Andonladis. To these ears, the composer evoked the oft recognized relationship between music and mathematics without unduly imitating Bach or minimalists such as Steve Reich. Completist that I am, allow me also to mention sound designer Chris Fitze. While there was not much sound to be designed, during the post funeral party scene we hear Hal's band performing in the background and I caught the use of original "math geek" lyrics. As with every other part of this production, attention is paid to even tiny details.
The actors, Sarah Hudnut as Catherine, John D. McNally as Robert, Jon Bernthal as Hal and Leslie Kalachian as Claire, were uniformly superb (and all members of the Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers.) Much of the time, I found myself thinking about them as a string quartet. Hudnut and Kalachian as the violins, trading turns as they set forth the thematic line. Bernthal as the viola, offering harmony, dissonance and counterpoint. McNally, the cello, providing the ground, the heartbeat connecting the others.
Similarly, as one might expect, it is easy to see the complex relationships among the characters as analogous to mathematical formulae. Let Catherine equal "c", let Robert equal "e", let Hal equal "h", let Claire equal "d." Does (e) [(c + d) ÷ h] = t if t = truth? Like it's namesake proof, some may find certain aspects of the plotting a bit "lumpy", but I found the PSC production of David Auburn's "Proof" well worthy of all its accolades and awards.
Ultimately, the greatest credit for the unqualified success of this particular production is due to director Michael Rafkin. In the interest of full disclosure I offer this disclaimer: Like any frequent theater goer in the Portland area, I've known Rafkin for many years and enjoyed dozens of plays he's directed. That said, (and ask Michael if you doubt this) I tend to be tougher on his work than I am on most directors. Arguably the best in the region, I expect a play directed by Michael Rafkin to be better than average. With "Proof" Rafkin has once again raised the bar for himself and every other director in town.
A string quartet, to return to that analogy, might work well independent of a conductor, but a play does not. What Rafkin brings to bear is his ability to draw from actors absolutely genuine emotions, totally believable moment to moment, while never losing sight of the overall arc of the play. Rafkin helped his quartet of actors bring fully human complexity to each of the roles. The emotional tone can change, either subtly or dramatically, within a few lines. In lesser hands some of these changes could seem abrupt or might be missed. In this "Proof" there is never a false note.
It is easy to imagine dozens of directorial choices that would have lessened the play's impact. For the play to achieve its full potential, the characters must let the audience observe as they navigate complex, often contradictory, emotional terrain. Each needs to show doubt, pride, and fear; intellect and delusions; and, above all, countless variations of love.
Claire, for example, might be played in a way that reduces her to "distant, selfish, controlling, bitch." Leslie Kalachian gets us to intuit the strength needed and sacrifices she made to create a "normal" life for herself, first within the context of her eccentric family, then moving away into independent adulthood. We see how she survives by compartmentalizing and being "practical." Kalachian, like her trio of castmates, deftly uses subtle and elegant bits of stage business and physicality to convey the contradictory cross currents beneath the surface of her lines.
Similarly, the role of Robert could slip into "lovable nut job" with ease, One can imagine different directorial choices or a lesser actor scattering twitches and tics about like New Year's confetti. John D. McNally's portrayal was elegantly understated, powerfully heightening the impact when he brings a focused intensity to brief moments of anger and pain, regret and love.
Jon Bernthal was a delight as Hal. Bernthal especially contributed to the comedic moments so necessary for the play's success. His Hal is a walking paradox, a geek hottie, smitten by his idol's daughter, looking for something to save him from a life of tenured purgatory. Is Hal a would be opportunist struggling with an inherently ethical nature...or the reverse? Once again, missing the mark could give us a Hal who overly foreshadows the climactic moments to come or litters the stage with red herrings. Bernthal never missed the mark.
What can I say about Sarah Hudnut as Catherine? She commanded the stage throughout the play without ever eclipsing her fellow actors. Hudnut fearlessly lets us see Catherine struggle with her deepest fears, greatest desires and endless doubts. Above all, Hudnut's Catherine delineates so many faces of love; the myriad of ways she loves her father, her sister, Hal, and herself. She lets us see, too, the fragility of love. Nearly every scene requires Hudnut to juggle a dizzying number of emotional twists and turns. On stage for most of the evening Hudnut , in an extremely demanding role, takes us on a brilliant journey.
Well, gosh, I guess I've gushed enough. I'm sure, if someone put a gun to my head, I could find a nit to pick somewhere, but I'm darned hard pressed to think where to look for that nit. There was an odd quirk on the part of the audience to applaud between scenes, but I can't fault Portland Stage Company for that. In short, as directed by Michael Rafkin, the Portland Stage Company's production of David Auburn's award winning play "Proof" proved one of the most compelling evenings of theater I've experienced in years.