David Auburn’s Proof, winner of both the Tony Award for Best Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is showing in a limited run on the Chapel Street Players (CSP) stage in Newark, Delaware. If you have it in your head to skip this play because you’re afraid
you won’t understand the mathematical references or never quite understood Pythagorean Theorem, your calculations are way off. Despite sharing the same name as a mathematical term, the play is only superficially about mathematics and focuses more on relationships and trust. If you can add two plus two, you’ll comprehend what’s happening onstage.
Proof, directed by William Fellner and set entirely on the back porch of a house near the University of Chicago is an intellectual and emotionally intense offering that centers on twenty-five-year-old Catherine (Cyndie Romer), who is emotionally shattered by the sudden death of her father, Robert (Dave Hastings), a brilliant and celebrated mathematician whose early genius revolutionized mathematics, but whose prodigy turned to insanity in the latter part of his life, forcing Catherine to abandon her own education in the field and become her father’s sole caregiver.
Catherine has spent the last several years exhaustively caring for her father and now, with his passing, she is emotionally drained and grief-stricken to the point of dysfunction when her overbearing and resentful older sister, Clair (Leslie Green Shapiro), arrives from New York for the funeral. Clair grudgingly concedes that Catherine has inherited their father’s mathematical genius, but fears that her woefully withdrawn sister has also inherited something else—Robert’s mental degeneration and insanity. Clair is determined to sell the house (the university has been after the block for years) and force Catherine to return to New York with her to seek treatment.
To compound Catherine’s misery, Robert’s former student, Hal (Ahmed Z. Khan), is vainly ransacking Robert’s study, pouring over dozens of notebooks left behind by the brilliant mathematician in the hopes of finding mathematical gold among the insane scribblings and knock-knock jokes in the form of complex math solutions that Robert may have conceived during his periods of lucidity. Hal seeks to preserve Robert’s legacy through the discovery of such a find that would alter the field of mathematics forever. Catherine fears Hal seeks fame for himself.
As Act I proceeds, a romance develops between Catherine and Hal. Catherine, feeling she can trust Hal, gives him a key and points Hal toward a notebook locked away in a drawer of her father’s study, a notebook that contains the proof that Hal has sought all along, a proof that will alter the field of mathematics forever. The act ends with the bombshell revelation that Catherine, not Robert, authored the proof.
Act II opens with a flashback to Robert’s lucid period which tells the backstory of how Catherine announced to her father that she was leaving, going to Northwestern to remove herself from her father’s shadow, an exodus which would allow her to spread her own wings.
We flash forward to where Act I left off, with Catherine’s stunning announcement that she wrote the impossibly complex proof. Clair, always envious of Catherine’s brilliance, is quick to denounce Catherine’s claim of authorship, pointing out that the handwriting is clearly their father’s. It’s unthinkable to Clair that her admittedly brilliant, but emotionally fragile sister could have written the proof. Even Hal doubts that Catherine could have written the proof, agreeing with Clair that the handwriting is remarkably similar to Robert’s. Clair and Hal’s refusal to accept Catherine’s assertion and their subsequent demand of proof, threatens Catherine’s tenuous composure, straining her already shaky relationship with Clair and threatening her budding romance with Hal.
We flash backward once more, becoming witnesses to the moment that prompted Catherine’s return to the house in Chicago and the abandonment of her dreams to act as Robert’s caregiver. With the backstory neatly filled in, we return to the present once more to see the final resolution.
Willian Fellner (with Assistant Director Susan Boudreaux) creates a wonderfully intimate adaptation of the play that is perfectly suited to CSPs cozy theatre space. Serving additional duties as both set and sound designer, Fellner has crafted a natural environment that is appealing and functional. The set design is realistic and sound and lighting cues are on the money. All three combine to create the illusion that we are seeing into the lives of four people play out on a Chicago back porch.
Under Fellner’s guidance, the talented cast conveys warmth, sensitivity, and conviction. Cyndie Romer is convincing as the alternately vivacious or emotionally barren Catherine as she confronts her demons and, with them, her constantly changing emotions.
Dave Hastings, in his Hawaiian shirts, Bermuda shorts, and sandals, portrays Robert as a kindly, loving father with a measured tone and a resonant voice.
The chemistry between Romer and Hastings is evident in the flashback scenes shared by father and daughter. A particularly poignant moment occurs when Robert proudly shows Catherine an outline for his new proof. Catherine scans the page as Robert beams, her smile fades and she falls silent with the realization that her beloved father has once again slipped into madness. “Dad,” she says quietly, “Let’s go inside.” With those four words, Romer communicates her heartbreak and regret.
Hal, the loveable, love-struck nerd is charmingly brought to life by Ahmed Z. Khan and Leslie Green Shapiro delivers a solid performance as the bossy, level-headed, well-meaning Clair.
If my calculations are correct, you will thoroughly enjoy the Chapel Street Players production of Proof. Don’t miss your opportunity to see this wonderfully compassionate and thought-provoking drama.