By John Quinn
The folks at Tipping Point Theatre have put together an All American Season for 2010-2011. Their latest offering, David Auburn’s “Proof,” has an admirable pedigree and deserves inclusion. Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play, “Proof” is a deceptively simple work with an easily understood theme: Mathematics are easy when compared to relationships.
It’s after 12 on a Chicago autumn night. An exhausted Catherine sits on the back porch of her family’s home. She’s joined by her father, Robert, who offers her a bottle of wine. It’s Sept. 4, her 25th birthday. But there’s a catch. Robert died the week before.
Once a brilliant mathematician, he fell into long-term mental illness. Catherine has put her education – her whole life – on hold to take care of him and finds herself lost when he died. Since she’s talking to the dead, it is understandable she is questioning her own sanity.
Hal, a former grad student of Robert’s, is up in the home office rummaging through his mentor’s last work hoping to find something rational to cap a stellar career cut short. Catherine directs him to the draft of a mathematical proof – the solution to a puzzle that had confounded generations of geniuses. But whose proof is it? Catherine says she wrote it. Her sister Claire claims it must have been their father. Hal is doubtful.
“Proof” explores the contrast between the rationality of science and the irrationality of human emotion. (Thank you, Mr. Spock.) In terms worthy of a police procedural, it demonstrates the difference between evidence and “beyond reasonable doubt.” Most important, though, it finds the moment when only a leap of faith will suffice.
It’s not often that I leave the theater humming the tech, but this is such an occasion. Director Suzi Regan has set “Proof” in the round, which was totally unexpected. Monika Essen’s cluttered, grey deck is strikingly symmetrical; under Daniel C. Walker’s subtle lighting it seems to float in a sea of darkness. As a result, the characters are lifted out of time and place; the relations are no longer about “Robert, Catherine, Claire” but Every Father, Every Daughter, Every Sister.
In the acting department, the heavy lifting is done by Kate Peckham in the role of Catherine. It is not an easy character for an audience to love. Catherine’s first act appearance is abrasive and belligerent. It’s not until the marvelous first scene of Act II, a flashback of four years to when Robert was lucid, that we understand the depth of her grief. In losing her father she has lost her anchor; her defensive behavior now has meaning.
Chris Korte (Hal) and Kelly Komlen (Claire) bring an interesting dynamic to the plot. Hal, despite protests to the contrary, really is a math geek and a laid-back one to boot. Big Sister Claire is domineering, in the “I know what’s best for you” manner of sisters everywhere. Many of you out there will recognize her right away. Hal and Claire are like poles of a magnet tugging at Catherine’s emotions, and the love/hate balance is satisfying drama. Both actors turn in nuanced, solid performances.
Hugh Maguire doesn’t just play Robert, he IS Robert. He manages to follow the fine line between insanity and genius, but deftly weaves from side to side. He has approached the role with such a studied nonchalance that not only is he mathematician or maniac, he’s your next door neighbor.
One personal note; I’m not a happy driver. I saw this show Saturday, Feb. 5, and the snow that day made my drive to Northville one of the worst trips in my memory. I arrived at the theater to find an almost full house. That so many patrons would brave the snow for an evening of theater means there is something good happening out that way. Quod est demonstratum.
Tipping Point Theatre, 361 Cady St., Northville. Thursday-Sunday through March 5. $28-$30. 248-347-0003. http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com .