Sunday, June 03, 2001

'Proof' masters equation for excellence

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Larry Bryggman and Mary-Louise Parker in a scene from Proof.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
        Proof, which will get to Cincinnati before The Producers, is something beautiful and rare: a well-made play.

        The plot is chock-full of holes, and I'll argue that it covers ground adjacent to Richard Greenberg's haunting Three Days of Rain (seen this season at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati), replacing architecture with mathematics as a jumping-off point.

        Again, a central concern is that of adult children groping their way toward understanding their relationships with parents who are no longer there.

        In Proof, Mary-Louise Parker (who will win a Tony for her performance) plays Catherine, who has set her education and perhaps her professional future aside to see her father through a long illness.

        The play's title carries almost as many meanings as it does in the dictionary. Father and daughter are mathematicians, and in part the title refers to abstract theorems about prime numbers.

        One of playwright David Auburn's great accomplishments in Proof is making us all think we get it, which makes us feel very good about ourselves indeed. (How many of us are experts in theorems?)

        Mr. Auburn also explores other meanings. There are things to be tested, conclusive evidence to be found, not just about math but about Catherine. Catherine wants proof of her own, most of all proof of whether anyone can be trusted.

        It is Catherine's birthday. Her infuriating older sister Claire (in a gorgeously layered performance by Johanna Day) has come home to Chicago to move Catherine out of the family house and on with her life.

        Claire plants seeds of doubt. Is Catherine's feyness something more, a real tendency toward instability? Their brilliant father went mad, finding secret messages in piles of leaves, complex and tantalizing codes in box scores, writing compulsively of nothing.

        Is Catherine's oddness merely an outgrowth of grief? She's attuned to her father's symptoms and fearfully looks for them in herself. She takes comfort in thinking that “crazy people don't sit around wondering if they're nuts,” but her ongoing conversations with the ghost of her dead father would certainly point in that direction.

        Proof is smart and compassionate, funny and sad. It even comes with a white knight for its heroine. If it all wraps up a little too neatly, its pleasures far outweigh such a quibble.


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