For those of us who had trouble getting beyond the multiplication tables, it's a bit difficult to comprehend how mathematics can be a seductively intricate and creative profession. After all, the answers are in the back of the book, aren't they?
Well, apparently not. It's a fiendish business, this theoretical number-crunching. That fact serves as the foundation of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof, being staged this month at the Cleveland Play House. In delving into this arcane science, Auburn explores the cutting edge where rationality meets creativity, and ponders whether genius is simply a euphemism for productive madness.
Though the themes are weighty, the script is fresh, witty, and unpredictable. The proceedings take place on the deck of a house owned by Robert, a former math professor at the University of Chicago and acclaimed mathematical genius. As one character says, "He revolutionized the field twice before his 22nd birthday." But Robert now suffers from a progressive form of dementia that has robbed him of his passion in life: his numbers.
Robert's younger daughter Catherine, whose caretaking has kept him out of a mental institution during these years, is wrestling with her life choices and the long shadow of her father. At the same time, she grapples with her control-freak sister Claire, as well as a math department grad student, Hal, who's on a mission to preserve whatever genius resides in the scores of garbled notebooks that clutter Robert's home office. Catherine is by all appearances a minor-league mathematician who has inherited some of her father's algorithmical gifts, but fears she also shares the genes that eventually convinced Daddy that he was communicating with aliens through the Dewey Decimal System.
An even more perplexing situation arises when Catherine gives Hal a key to a drawer that contains a single notebook detailing a stunning, breakthrough mathematical "proof." The authorship of this proof calls a number of things into question, including Catherine's grip on reality.
Flashbacks flesh out Catherine's earlier relationship with her father and reveal how devastating Robert's illness eventually became. Claire offers to help give Catherine a fresh start in New York City, but Catherine resists; she suspects Claire is planning to have her carted off to a mental institution instead. Ultimately, the provocative questions and the proof of what is "true" are dealt with by the characters using the same clumsy tools we all use to get through life: equal parts observable clues and blind trust.
In an outstanding cast, Derdriu Ring is worth the price of admission as Catherine. Her vulnerability and neuroses are achingly palpable, but in Ring's interpretation, Catherine is far more than a collection of predictable pathologies. She blends her character's sarcasm, fierce intelligence, and burgeoning sexuality into a nuanced and totally believable performance.
Though his imprecise stage diction detracts at times, Chad Willett is charmingly awkward as Hal, worshiping Robert while panting after Catherine. Prim and precise Claire is portrayed subtly by Carol Dunne, who avoids turning the "absent" sister into an easy target. And Mike Hartman breathes posthumous dignity into Robert. His reminiscence of something so mundane as watching students browse in a bookstore is indelibly lovely.
Director Seth Gordon meshes these excellent players and, in a risky move, creates a subtly off-center timing for the play's first scene, the reason for which becomes quickly apparent. The set design by Michael Ganio, featuring a galaxy of college notebooks suspended in the air, elegantly symbolizes the idea that in the world of geniuses, sanity often hangs by a slender thread.
But Proof is about much more than the line between mathematical genius and madness; it illuminates the evanescent nature of the creative process itself. As Hal says, creativity in math might peak at age 23: "Once you hit 50, you might as well teach high school." Creativity in any field often appears in a flash of momentary inspiration and can disappear with the next breath. It is a poignant reality, expressed with style in this absorb- ing production.