I think back fondly on an article called "On The Nature Of Mathematical Proof," published more than 40 years ago by a bright undergraduate math major at Harvard named Joel Cohen. In it, Cohen proved mathematically that "Alexander the Great did not exist and he had an infinite number of limbs."
It follows that I do not approach a play like David Auburn's Proof, currently at Geva Theatre, with the same degree of awestruck respect automatically given to it by most folk in the humanities and fine arts. The recent quantum production of award-winning plays taking math and science as their subject matter strikes me as symptomatic of an artistic inferiority complex. (Call physics X, and let it equal intellectual respectability.)
Fortunately, Auburn's Proof equates its fundamental dramatic values with primary human concerns like love, trust, and care. (Let Xequal three Graces.) Though most of its dialogue is delivered by mathematicians, their overwhelming problem is quantifying each other's stability in mind and motive. Watching Proof, we aren't sure how sane the great old mathematician was in his last days, how sensible his daughter is in wanting to live alone among his relics, or how genuine the ambitious young math student's love for her is versus how great is his lust for her father's possibly undiscovered work. Finally, how valuable is the one original proof that they do discover, and how capable is the daughter of having written it herself?
Proof doesn't show off Auburn's grasp of mathematical subtleties and elegances as works by British playwrights like Stoppard and Frayn tend to do. It is grounded in complexities of human conflict, as all great American drama is. Catherine sacrifices her college career to care for Robert, her mentally ill father, the genius who revolutionized modern mathematical thinking in his youth. She resents the constraint, but cares about this man, whose passion for inquiry she shares. She is so much like him that she fears she will eventually inherit his insanity. Claire, her sister, has similar fears for Catherine. Admittedly obtuse and controlling, Claire is also loving and anxious to do what is right for her sister after their father's death. Hal, Robert's former student, also seems genuinely concerned for Catherine, but he is very aware of the potential value of a remaining theorem of Robert's.
There is considerable wit and comical comment within these interactions, as well as a very moving romance, and perhaps an even more moving relationship between father and daughter (we see Robert in flashbacks throughout the play). Proof doesn't really tell us what the point of its uncovered mathematical proof is, or whether it is truly important. Instead, it ultimately resolves into a satisfying peek into the human heart.
Geva's production works very well. Director Mark Cuddy has developed a valuable artistic synergy working with composer Gregg Coffin. He integrates Coffin's fine, original music into this play so seamlessly that it seems an indispensable part of the drama. Scott Bradley's beautifully detailed, naturalistic scene of Robert's house has some oddly stylized, cut-out silhouettes of foliage that appear to be added to mask something, perhaps lighting instruments. Kirk Bookman's lighting design is more theatrical than realistic, but handsome and effective, as usual. B. Modern's authentic-looking costumes don't call attention to themselves, except for the little black dress that Claire buys for Catherine: It looks good on her, yet seems a comment on Claire's very different taste.
Greg Mullavey makes Robert entirely believable and an enduring presence, though he doesn't have much time onstage. Courtney Peterson's Claire gets all the annoyances and smile-producing shortcomings of her character, without losing her basic decency. Peter Smith comes on like a cocky, young, romantic lead, then rather subtly develops Hal into a fallible, sympathetic character. And Maria Dizzia carries this play on her young back, creating a remarkably complex central character, alternately withdrawn and radiant. Her Catherine keeps us guessing about her feelings, abilities, intent, control --- even her sanity --- but never allows us to even think of not hanging on her every word.
Proof, by David Auburn, directed by Mark Cuddy, plays at Geva Theatre, 75 Woodbury Blvd., through Sun., Nov. 17. Performances are Tues.-Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. at 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tix: $12.50-$46.50. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org.