Math mixes with madness in Covey Theatre’s production of Proof
David Auburn’s Proof came out of nowhere in the year 2000 to win both a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize even though it is nominally a mystery story about the authenticity of a formula in higher mathematics. Further, it is a formula playwright Auburn implies no one in the audience can comprehend. Just how authentic that formula might be does generate some dramatic tension, but gradually we come to recognize the question for it as a highbrow equivalent of the Alfred Hitchcock narrative device he called the MacGuffin.
The more compelling elements in Proof are original characterizations and the enlightening but difficult ways they play off one another.
For the current Covey Theatre Company production at the Mulroy Civic Center’s BeVard Community Room, Garrett Heater and Michael Penny’s set gives us the porch of a run-down house in Hyde Park, Ill., near the campus of the University of Chicago. The larger environment, however, dramatizes the rarified world of academic mathematics, where graduate student rock bands are called “The Imaginary Number” and where colliding geniuses might reach their peaks by age 23. Ultimate success is not measured by fame or fortune but by altering the paradigm that shapes everyone’s thinking. A breakthrough formula assures the esteem of colleagues now and for coming generations.
Cheerful, ironic Robert (Ed Mastin), a silver-haired star mathematician, enters with a bottle of champagne to celebrate the 25th birthday of his sullen daughter Catherine (Jodi Bova-Mele). They engage in useful exposition about annoying daughter Claire, who lives in New York City, graduate students (they’re pests) and his long career (he’s past it). Catherine has been tending Robert during his recent illness. She finds little to celebrate as she’s too old to have a significant career herself, and besides, she has no friends. Some of the dialogue turns out to be startling. Robert is actually dead, and his funeral is about to take place. Which leads to lesson No. 1: Evidence of presence, what you see before you, is not proof of his existence.
For a genius, Robert can be disarmingly accessible. Mastin plays him as a self-effacing, urbane wit, a welcome comic presence. He grumbles that “pasta is just a euphemism people invented when they got sick of eating spaghetti.” He is equally matter-of-fact when speaking of his years in the “bughouse.”
We learn more about Robert’s genius from an adoring graduate student, Hal (Nick Barbato), who’s been lurking in the house. In Hal’s dialogue with Catherine, her father Robert’s genius sounds much like that of Nobel laureate John Nash, dramatized in Ron Howard’s movie A Beautiful Mind (2001), in that his brilliance is not entirely separated from his madness.
Robert, Catherine and even Hal are casually disdainful of mathematics graduate students, who are dismissed as nerds. If downcast Catherine, with a pensive scowl, is the “girl,” rumpled Hal does not enter as the “boy” as one would expect in a romance. Instead, he is looking for the deceased great man’s notebooks, 130 of them, hoping that the promise he showed in his early career might been renewed in later life. They’re all gibberish, Catherine assures Hal. Except one, he reminds her. Just when we’re sure Catherine perceives Hal to be an annoying interloper and a careerist, something in his puppy dog charm appeals to her needfulness.
As Catherine has sacrificed years in caring for her ailing father, she has squandered her youthful potential as a mathematician. Less has been expected of her. During some of her father’s earlier lucid moments, she had planned to take some undergraduate classes at Northwestern on the other side of the city, which was OK but not a citadel like Chicago. She can’t stick with these, and, subsequently, she wasn’t much of a housekeeper, having let the house turn into something resembling a slum property. So when affluent sister Claire (Shannon Tompkins), a currency analyst, arrives from New York City, it seems reasonable that Catherine should relocate with her there, so that the less-achieving daughter might also be cared for.
When the sisters first meet on stage, Claire is pouring coffee—to which she immediately adds cream before asking Catherine how she wants it. When the answer is “black,” Claire just assumes she knows what’s better and gives her a cup with cream. Not a monstrous act in itself, but the self-assurance with which Claire assumes her superiority foreshadows her role in forthcoming conflicts. She repeatedly describes the Chicago scene as “dead,” although we can see through the lives of Robert and Hal that it is a geyser of intellectual activity.
Director Heater’s casting of Shannon Tompkins as Claire deftly alters the dynamic between the sisters. The bestknown player in the cast, Tompkins is much associated with musical comedy; she’s anything but an ogre. In the dialogues with Catherine, who can be dour and caustic, Claire takes the sunny side. We know that Catherine has been talking to persons who are not there, and she hasn’t been doing a good job of taking care of herself.
As we come to see, however, Claire is uncomprehending and dismissive of all that has been driving Robert and Catherine, and even Hal, for that matter. Bova-Mele’s Catherine repeats Claire’s words to devastating effect: New York City, “with its many fine museums.”
The relationship between Catherine and Hal is anything but a conventional romance. They meet ugly when he stumbles out of the house and she accuses him of stealing. At her instigation, they speed through a sexual encounter that has little effect on their feeling for one another. Catherine, even without sufficient formal education, feels she is more intelligent than he is. On the other hand, he is the only one with enough authority to recognize the significance of the formula in the mysterious notebook. Hal is much less than a knight on a white charger, but he can understand if led.
When a drama is described as “cerebral,” as is Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, there is a tendency to fear that it is bloodless and exclusive. You don’t need Algebra I to become involved in a family drama in which a loving daughter fears becoming like her father. These are not problems many of us face, but the Covey production pulls us in.
More than what it has to say about mathematics, Proof is an actor’s play, in which Catherine is constantly on stage and delivers the lioness’ share of the lines. The original production won a Tony for Mary Louise Parker, previously seen as just a sweet young thing. Jodi Bova-Mele, like Tompkins, has been a dancer and choreographer, but she was also seen at the title murderess in Covey’s Lizzie Borden Took an Axe. Like the portrait of her bare back with a gnomic mathematical tattoo on the program cover, her Catherine comes with hidden depths. o
This production runs through Saturday, March 16. See Times Table for information.