1 August 2003: Auburn, Proof

New Century Theatre, Northampton. Directed by Jack Neary

The closing play in the NCT Summer season, presented as a kind of companion piece with the earlier Copenhagen. The companionship was actually rather casual and almost coincidental; both plays are about scientists and mathematicians, and both involve an effort on the part of the dramatist (Michael Frayne, David Auburn) to breach a perceived gap between an abstruse subject and the needs (and presumed ignorance) of a popular audience. There the similarity almost ends, though one could perhaps tease out an additional thematic congruence in the notion of uncertainty (not the scientific principle deduced by Heisenberg) but the common, experiential sort. In the case of Copenhagen, we remain uncertain of what Bohr and Heisenberg said to one another during their perhaps fateful mid-war meeting in Denmark. In the case of Proof, the aptly titled play about a brilliant mathematician who goes insane, the uncertainty is of a far different sort, relating to the question of whether the mathematician’s daughter can possibly be the author of a proof regarding prime numbers, a proof she claims to have worked out herself while nursing her father through a years-long decline (he has just died as the action of the play begins). It is fascinating that Auburn is able to bring his play to focus on the human qualities of faith and trust. Finally, it turns out to be impossible for Catherine to prove that it was she, and not her father in an extended lucid moment, who conceived of the proof that has been sequestered away in the locked bottom drawer of the desk in the study, to which Catherine holds the key. There is indeed some nice symbolism in that, a suggestion that each human being holds the key, and the only key, to that person’s authenticity — a related idea that looms large in the play.

None of this deeper meaning is handled in even the least heavy-handed way by Auburn, who brings human values and human relationships to the fore and keeps them there throughout. This is a very skillfully written play, and the direction by Neary and the performances by these four actors (Steve Brody as the crazy mathematician Robert, Nicole Sypher as the possibly brilliant, and very likely disturbed younger daughter Catherine, Cate Damon as the bossy, intrusive elder daughter Claire, and Patrick Tangredi as Hal, Robert’s former student) are clear and affecting — engaging and even gripping. The setting is the façade and front porch of Robert’s house in Chicago, an unusually shallow set built almost on a line with, or just behind, the axis of the proscenium, with about a four-foot lip added to the apron, having the effect of bringing the action a good bit closer to the audience and creating a degree of intimacy that enhances and focuses the action of the play.

Finally, the question of proof, faith and trust devolves to the last situation of the play. Hal, still skeptical that Catherine, or anyone less brilliant than Robert himself, could have devised the proof in question, has spent several days conferring with colleagues about whether the proof, written in what could be Robert’s or Katherine’s hand, in one of the many notebooks in which Robert wrote nonsensically during the last years of his troubled life, is spurious or genuine. He has determined it is authentic, and moreover has noted that it involves some of the newest techniques, advanced only in the last few years. He brings the book back to Catherine as she is about to depart, unwillingly, for New York with Claire, to be “taken care of” (Claire sees Catherine as unstable and wants to give her access to therapeutic attention). Hal’s lack of conviction has created a rift between him and Catherine, but he is now prepared to reverse himself on this issue, and he urges her to sit down with him and talk him through any page of the proof. She leaps at the chance, seeing that at last he is according her the benefit of the doubt. The lights go out as they begin to huddle together over the open book. Closing the play off at that point of course forecloses the question of whether Catherine will indeed be able to talk her way convincingly through the proof. But such talk would be, we have to conclude, superfluous and undramatic. In a world in which life is never finished, human connections are more important than anything else. The “proof,” finally, to the extent that it can be identified at all, emerges through lived experience, not through the achievement of rationally based certainties.

So — a fine play, movingly performed. As the performance progressed, I found myself saying to myself, “This is why I go to the theatre. I love this.”


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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