'Proof' Tackles Question of Genius Amid Family Drama at Clague Playhouse

Are genius and madness closely, even inevitably, related? Many of us who aren’t geniuses would like to think so, feeling self-satisfied in our less than stellar quasi-sanity. 

This is a central question brought to the fore in Proof by David Auburn, a play about Robert, a mathematics professor and avowed genius who may have transferred both his talent and his eventual dementia to his daughter Catherine. However, this play is about math as much as The Producers is a play about the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Advanced theoretical math, and the elegant proofs that attend to it, are just the foundations of a family drama that often works on much simpler equations.

To wit: Robert’s recent death has suddenly flung his caretaker, the edgy and reclusive Catherine, into newly found freedom. But her sister Claire, who’s come in from New York City for the funeral, isn’t sure Catherine is stable enough to go it alone. And Hal, a former math student of Robert’s, is hanging around, sorting through Robert’s notebooks in search of a breakthrough math proof, and perhaps a bit of fame for himself.

As Auburn’s slickly written piece slides back and forth in time, we see Robert, Catherine and Hal at various stages of their relationship while Claire remains firmly fixed in the present. And thanks to the smooth and dexterous direction by Anne McEvoy, this production misses nary a step on the way to a well-earned and poignant conclusion.

Rachel Lee Kolis simmers and flares with quiet grace as Catherine, a young woman who has lived so long in the shadow of her brilliant father that she can’t quite see herself, or her path forward. As her ruthlessly efficient sister Claire, Renee Schilling overcomes the stiffness of an early scene with Catherine and registers powerfully in Act Two as she tries to control an uncontrollable situation.

As the inquisitive grad student Hal, Nicholas Chokan is charming and just hidden enough to raise suspicions about his true motives. And Robert Hawkes puts a warm, curmudgeonly twist on Robert, a twist that eventually turns sour. That happens during a flashback to a moment when the elderly math master thought his powers were suddenly returning to him. The truth, stated in a whispered reading of his “proof,” has its own tragic finality.

Whenever intellect and feelings collide on a stage, you can bet that emotions will win virtually every time. And so it is here, which is a bit predictable. But the Clague Playhouse production, performed on a wonderfully detailed set designed by Ron Newell, makes this old-fashioned storytelling ring gratifyingly true and fresh.

Through February 7 at the Clague Playhouse, 1371 Clague Road, Westlake, 440-331-0403

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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