note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Review appeared originally in the Wayland Town Crier
In a beautifully executed production of “Proof” at Beatrice Herford’s Vokes Theatre, playwright David Auburn explores the effects on a young mathematical genius of giving up college, friends and beaux to care for her brilliant but unstable father.
We first see Catherine (Susan Condit) asleep on the back porch of the run-down brick house where she lives with ex-wunderkind Robert (David Warnock), now a retired University of Chicago math professor. He wakes Catherine and gives her a bottle of bubbly to celebrate her birthday. They talk about his early work, his subsequent mental illness, Catherine’s mathematical talent, her years of caring for him, and whether she might become mentally unbalanced, too. Her father seems to be in a lucid phase. “Crazy people don’t sit around wondering if they’re nuts,” he says. However, he adds, it might be a bad sign that they are having this conversation after his death.
Thus we learn that Robert’s funeral is about to take place and that Catherine, at a loss about her future, imagines him still around. Her more-practical sister, who has been supporting Robert and Catherine, arrives from New York with well-intentioned but misguided plans. Claire (Melissa Sine) sees Catherine’s unsettled spirits as mental illness and lacks the imagination to wonder if instability is the form that genius takes when blocked.
Meanwhile, Hal (Judson L. Pierce), a young math professor who admired Catherine’s father and is intrigued with Catherine, has been going through Robert’s notebooks to see if his former mentor produced any unexpected works of genius in his decline. He urges Catherine to take a break from the lonely, depressing house and come hear his rock band of nutty mathematicians, but she clings to her known world.
“Proof” is a play that, without a sure hand, could become strident and unconvincing, given the copious tears and the occasional tormented soliloquy. But the confident and understated direction of Vokes newcomer Celia Couture draws the audience in and keeps it engrossed, unobtrusively exposing both the humor and sadness of the Pultitzer-Prize-winning script.
We follow Catherine through drunken despair, irritation with a sister who aims save her with jojoba-enhanced shampoo and psychiatric hospitals (“I would like to see a doctor called Dr. von Heimlich,” says Catherine in an ornery moment. “Please find one.”), new love and the devastation of discovering that the new love doubts her.
Catherine is so excitable and fey that when she sends Hal to a locked drawer in her father’s desk to find, to his astonishment, a brilliant mathematical proof, it’s hard to believe her claim that the work is her own. Claire and Hal are doubtful and suspect that Catherine is overly identified with the father she has lost. Seeing herself through the others’ baffled alarm, Catherine resignedly agrees to move to New York so Claire can keep an eye on her. Ultimately, “Proof” turns away from defeatism, but it leaves ambiguous whether a woman with Catherine’s history can anticipate a peaceful life.
Condit is a believable, moving Catherine, as mercurial, fragile and entertaining as a butterfly. Warnock is effective as a “noble mind o’er thrown.” Pierce is a steady, funny suitor -- Catherine’s best hope for joining brilliance to normalcy. Sine, in her most modulated recent performance, perfectly conveys both loving concern and pained lack of comprehension.
Ruth Neeman designed the evocative setting. The dappled light and the smooth visual flow of scenes was the work of lighting designer D Schweppe. Elizabeth Tustian created the costumes. The sound, including a wistful piano rendition of “Someone To Watch Over Me,” was by Bob Pascucci. The formidable John Barrett and his alter ego James Ewell Brown are listed as producer, technical director, set construction and box office. Surely such ongoing hard work and loyalty of the Vokes people will earn the gratitude of the Wayland community at the June 12 auction to save Beatrice Herford’s remarkable 100-year-old building, where productions like “Proof” are staged.
The show runs through May 22. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.