Fearful Symmetry

ATC enters the math-and-madness race with confident 'Proof.'

"Unless... " That's the final, midsentence word as the lights dim on David Auburn's Proof, a comic drama about speculation, contingency, evidence and trust. Last year's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play is now working out its hypotheses, first tentatively and ultimately with great assurance, in an Arizona Theatre Company production.

It's set on the dilapidated back porch of a Chicago home, perfectly designed right down to the last forgotten flower pot by Scott Weldin. The place is haunted by the morose, spectral Catherine, but she's not the family member who's dead. The dearly departed is her father, Robert, a brilliant mathematician whose life factored out into mental illness. Catherine, now 25, has spent what should have been her college years caring for her helpless, slowly declining father. She seems to have inherited his mathematical gifts; perhaps, she fears, she has also inherited his mental disorder.

Exhausted, isolated and cynical, Catherine sits resentfully by while Hal, a young math professor and one-time disciple of Robert's, studies the dozens of notebooks Robert left behind. One element of Robert's final illness was graphomania; he wrote compulsively, most of it nonsense. But he had revolutionized three fields of science while still in his 20s, and Hal doesn't want to risk overlooking some gem of an equation Robert may have devised during some rare, lucid moment at the end of his life.

Meanwhile, Catherine's prim, professional older sister, Claire, has breezed in from New York to organize the funeral, organize the wake, and maybe even organize Catherine's life. She had remained notably absent, however, during Robert's illness.

Eventually, Catherine leads Hal to one more notebook very much like the others, except that this one contains not gibberish but a long, spectacular mathematical proof more advanced than anything Hal or his University of Chicago colleagues can fully comprehend. That's the first big surprise; the second is that Catherine, who dropped out of college at the sophomore level, claims it's her work, not her father's.

This could have been a 3-D show--dry, depressing, derivative. Dry, because it revolves around math geeks, who on a couple of occasions even read equations aloud. Depressing, because yet another set of siblings joins the theatrical parade of family dysfunction going back more than two millennia to the Oresteia. Derivative, because it shares elements with both Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia (about a closeted young female math genius) and A Beautiful Mind (about a bonkers male math genius), a book recently converted to film.

Yet Proof stands solidly on its own as an original, entertaining, serious but often very funny work. Some of the humor comes from snappy, snotty lines (Catherine to her sister: "Don't lie to me, Claire; I'm smarter than you"). Much of it, though, arises from the characters' tendency to reveal a bit too much about themselves at inopportune moments. One example: Catherine tells Hal that her father spent hours studying the Dewey decimal numbers on library books, convinced they were messages from aliens. Hal, an appealing fellow and the most well-rounded character on stage, betrays his inner nerd by asking, of all questions, "What kind of messages?"

This production is directed by ATC associate artistic director Samantha K. Wyer, who not coincidentally supervised Arcadia at the University of Arizona in early 2000. Wyer is expert at coaxing honest feelings out of scripts that are emotionally recondite or, at least, sketchy, and Proof gives her and her actors plenty to work with--guilt, resentment, love, fear.

The show began unsteadily Saturday, though. The opening exchange between Angela Pierce as Catherine and Traber Burns as Robert was too cold and staccato, like a first reading of a David Mamet scene before the actors fall into the dialogue's strong but peculiar rhythms. Things picked up with the entrances of Marc Aden Gray as Hal and Courtney Peterson as Claire. But for much of the first act, although Pierce had mastered Catherine's arrested-teenager physicality--she sprawled, she flailed, she curled up into a ball--she took a heightened, studied approach to her lines that the other actors eschewed. Robert, Hal and Claire were in a Chicago back yard; Catherine was in a play.

Everything coalesced nicely as Catherine's tension began spreading to the other characters, and Proof turns out to be yet another high point in ATC's most consistent season in years (aside from last fall's sometimes dorky new translation of Ibsen's Ghosts).

"Mathematics," says W.S. Anglin, a practitioner of the science quoted in the ATC program, "is not a careful march down a well-cleared highway, but a journey into a strange wilderness, where the explorers often get lost." Proof's characters are lost, and not just in math. As they begin to find their way, they learn that it takes a balance of heart and mind, not just mathematical equations, to frame life's fearful symmetry.

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