by David Auburn
Saint John Theatre Company
The Imperial Theatre, March 2004
As John Dryden observed well over three centuries ago, "Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide." Whether it's true or not, the idea has undergirded a fairly substantial number of plays, novels and films. Most recently, it seems to have been mathematics rather than poetry that has teetered on the brink. Consider the success of the 2001 Ron Howard film, A Beautiful Mind, about the struggles of mathematician John Nash with schizophrenia, and the opening of David Auburn's Proof the year before at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Both works suggest that there's some connection between mental illness and the ability to manipulate the extreme, patterned complexity of higher-order mathematics. The similarity between the two works was invoked by the program cover of the Saint John Theatre Company's production of Proof, which showed Kizzy Kaye, playing the potentially mad mathematical genius daughter of an authentically mad mathematical genius, through a glass inscribed with complex mathematical formulae -- an image most filmgoers would recognize instantly.
Though the two stories are quite different, there's one fundamental similarity: both attempt to be about the people rather than the ideas, and in both -- unlike, for example, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia or Michael Frayn's Copenhagen -- the demands on the audience's ability to understand complex concepts are kept to a minimum. In fact, both have been sneered at for this (though both have been respectfully reviewed in mathematical journals).
Proof, indeed, is an immensely smart and well constructed script, full of neatly structured dialogue, real human emotion, clever storytelling and elegant stagecraft, as well as characters -- three of them, at least -- that you can come to care about. The premise is this (though things aren't presented in this order): Catherine is the potentially brilliant daughter of a certifiably brilliant mathematician, Robert, who spends the last few years of his life, as he phrases it, "bughouse," with Catherine sacrificing her career and possibly her personal life to care for him, in the hope that she may be able to extend his rare periods of lucidity. During one of the longer periods of lucidity, he begins taking students again, at the University of Chicago, and Catherine thinks she may have a chance to attend grad school, at Northwestern. During this period he takes on a grad student, Hal, who worships him, and notices Catherine. As the play opens, it is four years after his last lucid period. Robert has recently died; Catherine is fantasizing (or dreaming) conversations with him; her sister Claire, who has been off pursuing her career in New York and handling finances, is home for the funeral and the usual tying up of loose ends (including Catherine and the ramshackle family home); and Hal, now an assistant professor, is in the attic going through the hundreds of notebooks left by the graphomanic Robert, looking for any glimpses of the genius which had once been there.
The entire play takes place on the back porch of the Chicago home, and is craftily structured to accommodate a couple of flashbacks and to help the audience see the parallels between, say, Catherine's caring for Robert and Claire's attempts to "care for" Catherine, between Robert's manic monologues and Catherine's, between the way the naive, geeky Hal worships Robert and also worships Catherine. In terms of plot, what happens is that Catherine, deeply suspicious of Hal at first, comes to trust him, shows him the one notebook with something of value in it (locked in a desk to which she awards him the key as a gesture of trust). The notebook contains what Hal is convinced is a monumental work of mathematical genius, a "proof" of something to do with prime numbers (it's never, of course, clear to us exactly what). After Catherine, as a wonderful first act closer, announces that it wasn't Robert who created it, but her, the question becomes who believes her and what would constitute "proof" that it was indeed her creation.
All this is folded around a romanticized (but plausible) presentation of the community of mathematicians (typified by the account of a rock band made up of mathematicians playing "i" -- three minutes of silence, an "imaginary number"), a dramatization of the mutual recriminations familiar to everyone who's shared with her siblings (inequitably, of course) the duty of caring for an aged or infirm parent, and the difficult, prickly building of a relationship between two not-very-socially-adept mathematicians.
That the Saint John Theatre Company took on this elegant script is to their credit, and that they gave it a solid, professional, and convincing production is even more so. Having read the script, one of my students wondered if the play was big enough to fill the mammoth, baroque temple that is the Imperial Theatre -- a real question, given the fact that the one-set, four-character play seems designed for small theatre companies with limited resources. The company found ways to make the play fill that mammoth stage, largely by putting the whole back of the house, and a bit of the side yard, before us, and filling the space behind with a bit of sky and some silhouetted trees. It wasn't Chicago, and the house was far more a nice rural frame New Brunswick house than anything you'd find within a few miles of the south side University of Chicago campus, but the house was appropriately neglected and the space was flexible enough for acting (though occasionally one felt characters were rather too far apart to connect emotionally, just because the space was there and needed to be used).
Jay Rawding, as Robert's rather naive and eager student, begins the evening a little frenetically, but settles in and eventually gives us reason to see Hal as in many ways the voice of reason in the play, and, conceivably, as someone who can help the edgy, angry, and slightly paranoid Catherine find a way to live in the world. David Cook's Robert is in some ways the most sympathetic and moving character in this production. In Catherine's fantasy of him, which opens the play, he's clever, confident, and caring; in the scene in which she realizes that what had seemed a promising recovery has collapsed back into incoherent, schizophrenic ramblings, his own recognition of the defeat, conveyed to us through his slumping back and his suddenly ageing legs, is one of the most moving in the production. In some ways the most difficult role in the play, the returned and ostentatiously helpful Claire, is given a good shot by Phillippa Mugglestone, but it's not clear that she manages to deal with the challenge posed by Auburn's script -- that is, to make us care about her rather than simply to see her as a meddlesome, insensitive, and mindlessly efficient Big Nurse, shepherding Catherine off to the Big City with emptily enthusiastic cheerleading. It didn't help that she occasionally misread lines (at one point, for instance, she enthuses about New York, "we have a place where we BUY all our coffee," as though elsewhere you got it free, rather than stressing the kind of coffee it is).
Of course, the central role in the play is that of Catherine. In the publicity, the company makes much of the train of stars Kizzy Kaye is following in the role ("she will be following in the footsteps of the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anne Heche, Mary Louise Parker, and Gwyneth Paltrow," the press release says), and there is certainly material her for a star turn -- the warm but prickly relationship with her fragile father; the hostile, suspicious opening with Hal and the ripening, uneven progress of the relationship; the moments of nearly connecting vs. long-standing suspicion and hostility with her sister. If Kaye isn't always mesmerizing -- in the first act it sometimes seemed the dialogue was just a beat off, just a hint of a mechanical verbal tennis match -- she acquired a kind of momentum and energy that carried us along, and made us feel that this complicated and prickly character was worth caring about. Especially as we saw her refusing to condescend to her father and then watching her sister condescending to her, it became clear she was worth our interest. We became used to, and in fact found endearing, her repeated brushing aside of her hair, the jutting of her jaw toward to the person she was talking to: "go ahead, hit me, it's what I probably deserve."
One of the more striking features of the production was the lighting design. Darik Hatfield met the formidable challenges of the sudden changes in time with imaginative and interestingly timed changes. The complicated lighting change that marked, for instance, Catherine's "awakening" from her conversation with her dead father to the one with the clearly live Hal, was elegant and effective (though I wasn't certain it was necessary). On the other hand, the sudden, artificial flash which, at the end of the first act, punctuates Catherine's announcement that she hadn't found the earthshaking proof, but written it, seemed unnecessary and condescending (surely we could recognize the importance of the revelation without a lightning strike to tell us?) Similarly, it seemed regularly that the music -- soft popular music whose words echoed the current situation in the script -- tried to tell us what we should feel rather then seducing us into feeling it.
All this aside, however, this is a production which signals a growth in the range and competence of the Saint John Theatre Company for which we should be grateful. Their current fund-raising projects, in attempts to solidify their presence in the community, are clearly efforts which deserve support from all of us who hope that New Brunswick continues to see thoughtful, resonant scripts produced with intelligence and integrity.
(I would caution them about publicity, though: they billed Proof as "a spellbinding new mystery." The jury's out on whether it's spellbinding, but new it's not, nor is it a mystery.)