David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Proof” cleverly filters an impassioned human drama through a world of higher mathematics. The setting is the decaying back porch of a faculty home on the campus of a Chicago university.
Besides the worn-out furniture and fixtures a special bit of visual embroidery serves as the frame of Eugene Lee’s evocative set on which are scribbled oodles of mathematical equations. It’s both apt and whimsical.
But there is nothing whimsical about the three principal characters, who are mathematicians, or about the fourth, an outsider only in the sense of comparable scholarship. Though their dedication to their field of study is observed, it is secondary to the resolve of a parent-child relationship, a blossoming romance, and the mystery that surrounds the authorship of a revolutionary mathematical formula.
Though some plays with academic and scientific subjects — such as Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” — are able to dazzle us with the precise and particular words of its science, Auburn’s play is easily accessible through the grace of ordinary words. That is not to say that its extraordinary deployment of dual realities doesn’t stretch our perceptions. Director Emily Mann has agreeably addressed the duality of the reality with precision and empathy, but most impressively by making the right impact through her very fine cast.
I am so pleased to see Kristen Bush, who made a terrific impression last season as the sole woman among men in the Roundabout Theater’s “The Common Pursuit.” She is even better in “Proof,” this time bravely battling inner demons as the 25-year-old Catherine, the daughter of Robert, a brilliant mathematician and teacher.
Having inherited her father’s intelligence and intense love of math, Catherine’s promising scholastic career is just taking off when she makes the life altering decision to leave college to be his sole caregiver, as he loses a battle with mental deterioration. It is not easy for Catherine to cope with her father, who has come to believe that aliens are communicating with him through the Dewey Decimal numbers in library books.
For a while it looks like the bespectacled, slovenly dressed, rude, and aggressively antisocial Catherine is also straddling the fine line between genius and madness. For her that means keeping a tentative grip on what has happened and what is now happening in the wake of her father Robert’s (Michael Siberry) prolonged dementia and subsequent death. It is an emotional roller coaster ride for her as well as for the audience. Her distress is not only exacerbated by being suddenly left rudderless without her father, who was her closest friend and mentor, but also by the arrival of her sister — with whom Catherine has had a difficult relationship — from New York City.
The play is marvelously empowered by the presence of Broadway veteran Michael Siberry (“Enemy of the People,” “Man and Boy”), whose performance is palpable with flashes of genius and glimpses of geriatric failings. Also no stranger to the McCarter stage (“Candida” “Uncle Vanya”), he punctuates the scenes he is in with the obsessively dotty dedication of a man consumed by his love of math; you cannot take your eyes off him.
When Hal (Michael Braun), a post-graduate mathematician, gets permission from Catherine to browse through the more than 100 notebooks left by the idealized professor, he also discovers something special about Catherine. Her otherwise barbed responses, basic distrust, and suspicions, as well as her general state of depression, appear as fixedly unstable as the dilapidated old house. Hal’s aggressive investigation into the vast and disorganized mathematical material contained in the professor’s notebooks is tempered by his cautious but persistent interest in Catherine.
Braun, who was part of the extraordinary Broadway cast of “War Horse” and featured in the Bridge Project’s productions of “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Cherry Orchard,” is not your cookie cutter leading man. But he almost immediately displays the boyish virility that will ignite a romantic spark in Catherine.
Even before the somewhat expected intellectual and emotional catharsis that comes to Catherine with Hal’s intervention there is a revelation at the end of Act I that (though it is dramatically manipulative) will undoubtedly startle you. That is, if you have not seen the play before, including a 2003 production at the George Street Playhouse, where it was originally developed before heading to Broadway.
Things begin to bristle when Catherine’s questionably mercenary stock analyst sister, Claire (Jessica Dickey), returns home for their father’s funeral. By giving Claire a slightly grating edge, the very attractive Dickey gives us an amusing side to unnerving normalcy as she tries to persuade Catherine to close down the house and move into the city under her watchful eye . . . or check into the “bughouse.” She is slow to grasp the idea that Catherine’s attachment to the home has as much to do with the lingering (and literal to Catherine) presence of Robert, as it is to her emotional and intellectual tie to her father.
As the play proceeds, Auburn correlates the past and future and the scholarly relationship between father and daughter so deftly, humorously, and poignantly that one quickly buys into the assumption that time is, indeed, relative and relatively mysterious. Digging in her heels, however, does not keep Catherine from falling into the arms of the ardent Hal, whose seduction is as artfully maneuvered, as is his aggressive investigation. Throughout this generously witty and intellectually stimulating play, we are inclined to think about motives, sincerity, career choices, love, and truth, and a few other things that good plays should make us think about. Isn’t that enough proof?
Proof, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Through Sunday, October 6. $20 to $87.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.