Proof by David Auburn is the story of a woman in her mid 20s named Catherine, who has lived her life in the shadows of her father, a brilliant and famous mathematician, taking care of him as he gets older in their cozy residence on the rural outskirts of a college town. Catherine’s older sister Claire has left the family home to have a solid and successful – yet from Catherine’s and seemingly the playwright’s viewpoint – uninspired life as a currency analyst in New York City. A mother character is not present, nor from my memory, is her absence fully explored.
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However, there is plenty of family dynamic to soak in already, between the two sisters’ relationship, in addition to the presence of their father Robert, recently deceased from a heart attack, who appears to Catherine as a friendly spirit in some scenes and in more traditional flashbacks in others.
Outside of the family dynamic is Hal, a former student of Robert’s, and now a teacher himself at the same college, at the age of 28. Hal feels a sense of professional duty over the legacy of Robert’s lessons and it could be said that he tends to overstep his bounds in the pursuit of helping to maintain and persevere that.
Perhaps also being self motivated to get whatever attention he can as the “protector” of these lessons, Hal does come across as likable enough and believable as someone who does have the “greater good” in mind. The play’s story gets moving when Hal decides to investigate Robert’s house to see if there was any great lesson left lying around.
During his visit to the house, a little romance develops between himself and Catherine, giving her the hope of her own life and identity that has alluded her before this, as she has been overwhelmed by her father’s persona and her sister’s interference.
Indeed, as the early morning son clouds everyone’s judgement, a profoundly significant 40-page “math theoretical lesson” or “proof” is discovered in the home written in a simple notebook, which Hal assumes was written from the late Robert. Complications arise when Catherine claims she – and not her father – is the proof’s author.
Claire and Hal both doubt Catherine’s ability to author such a monumental work and the already cynical Catherine further withdraws into her own emotions. She does not feel that she can trust anyone and most audience members would likely sympathize with her at this point.
Catherine is so withdrawn at times, she rightfully fears that her older sister may be plotting to have her seen by a mental health professionals who might even commit her. Catherine’s fear show’s the thin line between genius and and madness than many of the world’s greatest thinkers are said to have walked, either in truth or from the unfair perception of whatever society they were in.
Proof was written in 2000 by American playwright David Auburn, developed at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, during the 1999 Next Stage Series of new plays, premiered Off-Broadway in May 2000 and transferred to Broadway in October 2000.
The play won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play. This is well tested material that plays as both “big” and “small” in scope. “Big” in that the themes of love, sibling rivalry, mental health, professional authorship, the responsibility of a student to honor his teacher no matter what the cost, the nature of genetics, and so forth.
“Small” in that the play has only four actors and takes place, more or less, on the back porch of the family’s estate. There are many references to “off the porch” action, with Hal especially bouncing off and on stage, after an important meeting of some kind or another, which opens up the action and the “feeling” of the play quite a bit.
However, at the end of the nearly 2 and 1/2 hour show, an audience member may be indeed surprised that everything took place right there on that porch.
Granite’s well acted version of Proof stars Director David Jespon himself as Robert , Nick Perry as Hal, and Michelle Mania as Claire, who all play their roles quite well. However, special note must be given to Ricci Mann as Catherine, who really has a role here of Hamlet-esque proportions to work with and she does the character great justice in both performance and subtext.
Catherine’s character could be played many ways, however, from my perspective, Mann does an excellent job in finding both the strength and weaknesses in Catherine; a character that demands for respect for her own work yet she still falls prey to allowing others, especially Hal, be the source of validation for her. There is much in the text to find these emotional points, but also in the subtext Mann has found something special with her version of Catherine.
Of course, her co-stars are all on point in performance, and, as necessary for a character driven show like this to succeed, there are no weak links apparent. Jepson and Mann have a truly endearing back and forth as father and daughter, whose relationship transcends even life and death.
The set design is quite magnificent and provides a great playground for these Actors to explore the dynamics and nuances of Catherine’s relationship with the world and the bigger conversations of authorship and the nature of genius that arise from her journey.
Proof is playing at the Granite Theatre through May 12.