August 20, 2012


'Proof' of life

By Mark Langton
IJ Correspondent

It doesn’t take a genius in mathematics to appreciate the symmetry in almost everything about Ross Valley Players’ sensitive revival of David Auburn’s “Proof,” which opened Friday, Sept. 15 at the Barn Theatre in Ross -- with variable results.

Mathematics is only ostensibly the subject of playwright Auburn’s precise rendering of human relationships, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award when it opened on Broadway in 2001. It is not exactly a linear tale -- one that reads right-to-left like a mathematical proof or, say, a musical composition. Instead, it gives us a disassembled, sideways look at even the passage of time, as well as the random elements and vagaries of love -- bending them the way some theorems bend light. It is an edge-of-your-seat mystery the way human relationships are a mystery: endlessly surprising, funny and incalculably complex. Rendered in poetry rather than by-the-numbers, this rich, absorbing play has more to do with measuring the depth of the human heart than it has to do with its circumference.Nevertheless, things got off to a stuffy beginning on opening night. In the opening scenes, actors started bouncing their lines back and forth like a quick game of Pong – appearing to be more concerned with picking up the ends of their cues than listening to each other. This was peppered with uncomfortably long pauses in dialogue, presumably to create tension. Alas, the only tension this created was an initial concern that actors had gone up on their lines -- or that maybe we had a clunker on our hands.

Then, something happened.

Perhaps it was that these are four likable actors in four likable roles, but by the end of Act One, you couldn’t help but feel that you already knew these people. Whether it was the surprise piece of information craftily withheld in the opening scene, or the end-of-Act-One shocker that caused audible gasps from the audience, it was as if these four actors took heart from the general intake of air from the audience, causing them to breathe life into these roles by the second half.

Without giving too much away, the story concerns Catherine (Katherine McDowell), a lovely math geek who is the grown daughter of Robert (Wood Lockhart), a genius mathematician who revolutionized his field in the early part of his career, only to descend into mental illness. Daughter Catherine appears to have inherited some of her father’s gifts and, she fears, some of his pathology as well. Enter Hal (Michael Abts), a grad student of Robert’s, to help Catherine sort out some of her father’s potentially promising old notebooks. But not before Claire (Jeanette Harrison) enters the scene as Catherine’s “normal” older sister, a yuppie meddler who takes it upon herself to move in for a “rescue” operation. Boy meets girl; girl loses trust in boy; boy loses girl and – well, you do the math.
Out of this quartet, director Cris Cassel has developed intellectually and emotionally compelling music, especially as this production finds its stride. As demonstrated in her direction of the recent RVP comedy, “Over My Dead Body,” Cassel has a rhythmic gift for time signatures as well as storytelling, which ultimately transcended any opening night jitters Friday.

Of course, it helps that all four of these actors ultimately make us care about them. And it doesn’t hurt that both women in this cast are unconventional beauties, essays in geometry as they glide across the stage. McDowell’s Catherine reveals a visible arc from play’s start to play’s end, moving from strident amateur to knowing ingĂ©nue, with touches that were surprisingly subtle and wise. Also, to her everlasting credit, Harrison softens the role of Catherine’s controlling older sister with warmth and sensitivity, instead of opting for a shallow caricature of Claire.

As to the men, Lockhart, as he did with the Henry Fonda role in last season’s “On Golden Pond,” infuses Robert with humor and paternal warmth, even in dementia. And with Abts’ ultimately winning performance as Hal – especially in the love scenes with Catherine – this actor completely inhabits his body, his gestures playful and precise, whether engaged in forelock tugging or erotic intent.

Again, this intriguing play has more to do with the human heart than with math. Greater truths, it seems to say, especially when it comes to "soft" evidence of loyalty, love or family ties, can always be found hidden in plain sight – much like the satisfying symbol that dominates Don Cate’s oh-so-symmetrical set (in case anybody missed it): the symbol for pi, disguised as an archway at center stage.

Employing variables of dissonance and counterpoint, harmonies of opposites, often calling upon the music of the spheres, this production of “Proof” gives equidistance to both the sorrows and exultations of complex relationships – whether they be between rival siblings, a father and a daughter, or two people in love.

It is not difficult to recommend a play whose whole is larger than the sum of its parts. Go see it – if only because it will remind you of yourself, of your humanity, that life is made up of principles of uncertainty and, especially when the equation is love, that you know how to count to two, too.

Photo: Ron Severdia