Reviewed by Genève Bacon
Proof, David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, is an exploration of the mysteries of relationships, sanity, love, and mathematics. As presented by the North Carolina Stage Company, it is an outstanding piece of theater and thoroughly rewarding evening.
Catherine (Anne Thibault) has sacrificed five years of her life taking care of her brilliant mathematician father, Robert (Kermit Brown), as he veered between sanity and madness. Facing her twenty-fifth birthday, she is isolated, depressed, uncertain of her own sanity or ability to function in the world at large. The security of this isolation is disturbed, first, by Hal (Matt Opatrny), a former student of her father's. She has given him permission to look through the 103 notebooks her father kept over those five years, he hoping to find something of value in them. When she catches him trying to make off with one of the notebooks he says he took it in order to give it to her as a birthday present. Is she to believe him? Are we?
The second disturbance in her life is the arrival of her estranged sister, Claire (Connan Morrissey). Claire, a take-charge person, has her sister's life planned out for her: Catherine will move to New York City with Claire to live with her and her fiancé until she finds a place of her own. Given their past relationship, Catherine wonders whether Claire is really trying to help her or trying to get control over her with the aim of having her committed. Can Catherine trust Claire? Can we?
Where is the proof of Hal's intentions and of Claire's? And where is proof of Catherine's sanity? Has the gene of madness been passed from father to daughter? These are the conundrums plaguing Catherine and the audience. In Catherine's world there is only one thing susceptible of proof and that is mathematics. But in this family, mathematics has led to insanity.
Anne Thibault, in the role of Catherine, delivers a dynamic and riveting performance. The highs and lows of the character's chaotic personality take the audience on a roller coaster ride, going from despair to hope, happiness to rage, surly to pleasant, until it seems that Catherine must surely break under the weight of her contradictory emotions. In the hands of the accomplished Ms Thibault, these elements are kept firmly under control and are totally consistent within the inconsistency of Catherine's character.
Matt Opatrny brings to the role of Hal the right amount of youthfulness, charm and self-deprecation leavened with just enough self-interest to keep the audience guessing as to his real motives.
Connan Morrissey makes the pragmatic sister Claire both sympathetic in her concern for her sister and exasperating in her controlling, I-know-what's-best-for-you attitude. Claire wants genuinely to do what's best for Catherine, but always winds up hurting, antagonizing, and alienating her sister. These two are from different planets; they talk to one another without communicating and might just as well be speaking different languages.
Kermit Brown portrays Robert with warmth, charm, and humor. The depth of his love for Catherine is seen in his gentle teasing and cajoling as he attempts to re-engage her in life. He so convincingly brings out the character's strength, intelligence, gentleness, and feistiness, that when we see his descent into madness we are as shocked and heart-broken as Catherine.
Taken together, these four actors give a fine ensemble performance, creating characters that will not soon be forgotten in a play that leaves you much to think about.
Reviewed by David Hopes
North Carolina Stage Company's production of Proof, the Pulitzer Prize winner by David Auburn, makes it look like a better play than it is, and that's especially good news, because it is a very fine play indeed.
When Copenhagen and Picasso at the Lapin Agile began appearing in the past decade or so, braniacs were suddenly chic, and bits of quantum theory could be presented onstage without apology. Proof, the story of mathematicians working at once on the edge of their discipline and the edge of sanity, is a lineal descendent, a little less weighty than Copenhagen, maybe, but with the same charming conviction that ideas really have a place in the theater. An abstract deduction about prime numbers is not as sexy at the atom bomb or Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, so Proof has to lean a little more on the human element, and the two quirky love stories-- father and daughter, daughter and student–inject an earthy, oddly working-class sweetness to the heady mix.
NC Stages's casting is, typically, impeccable. Ann Thibault, Kermit Brown, Matt Opatrny, and Connan Morrissey cannot be improved upon. Matt Opatrny plays the disciple Hal with a mullet and a boyish enthusiasm which reminds us that, in America, brain-workers are still workers, and are at their best with a three-day beard and empty fast food bags piled up around the chaotic, productive working space. Hal embodies the honesty and straightforwardness of the ideal academic. Connan Morrissey has a difficult task as the older, worry-wart sister, Claire. She is hateful without being a gargoyle. The five members of my party at the Wednesday preview were unanimous in wanting to cross the imaginary footlights and slap her silly, and yet all admitted that she was the very image of people we knew, whom we not only do not slap silly, but sort of love.
The weight of the play is on Anne Thibault's Catherine, who comes through with the exactly right combination of frumpy brat and agitated genius. The action of the play pivots on whether Hal believes Catherine is as smart as her father (played by Kermit Brown, whose natural warmth brings a flood of sympathy to any character he plays, whether the vaguely sinister Polonius or the bonkers mathematician Robert). He doesn't, at first, and, at first, neither might we, for she is such a frump and a harridan that we can't imagine a world-shattering perception entering the world through that door. But, part of the cleverness of the play is to trap us in the cords of our own perceptions, to show us ourselves in the act of jumping to the wrong conclusions. A careful mathematician, a mathematician on the order of the sad old man we see losing it on his own back porch, would never do such a thing.
One profound moment which rings in my head to this hour is that in which Robert presents his magnum opus to his daughter in the hour of his returning madness, and she reads it, and it falls from her lips as though it were nonsense. It is not nonsense. It is poetry. Does genius, stricken, merely turn into another sort of genius? The lost subject of this play is the interface between science and poetry, but maybe Mr. Auburn will follow his own hints at a later time.
The play has one flaw, and that is its last few seconds. I think director Angie Flynn-McIver, whose skill and sensitivity is the stuff of every playwright's dream, might have been able to smooth this out with a last kiss, perhaps, or a slower fade in the lights, but perhaps she was doing exactly what the playwright indicated. And what the playwright indicated is the right things to do, mostly, but only ninety-nine times out of a hundred.
Rob Bowen's set is marvelous, all run-down backyard Chicago, the sort of place a mad genius would inhabit where there are no ruined castles. This is a fine play in an exemplary production by a company which seems able to do no wrong. Go see it.