What was in the air of America, figuratively speaking, in the late 1990s?
Film director Darren Aronofsky debuted with “Pi,” about a man driven mad by his belief that everything in nature can be understood through numbers. Sylvia Nasar published her Pulitzer-nominated “A Beautiful Mind,” about the schizophrenic delusions of math genius John Nash.
And David Auburn wrote a play called “Proof” about – wait for it – a brilliant mathematician whose descent into madness leaves his daughter wondering if she has inherited both his talent and his instability.
It’s enough to make any sensible person switch majors to European history at once.
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Carolina Actors Studio Theatre has produced Auburn’s Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play in a spare, effective version on a thrust stage that pokes out at the audience like a warning finger: Any of us could become the plaything of destiny, even if we don’t have the analytical gifts of Catherine (Karina Roberts-Caporino).
She has the good/bad fortune to be the daughter, caretaker and intellectual inheritor of Robert (George Gray), who revolutionized multiple math fields in his 20s before spending four decades sliding into incoherence and irrelevance.
Hal (Scott Alexander Miller), a young professor, goes through Robert’s notebooks to see if the chaos might yield insights. He is delighted to discover a profoundly advanced proof of a theorem.
But he and Catherine’s sister, Claire (Frances Bendert), are flummoxed by the announcement that she wrote it, not her dad.
You can take the title many ways.
It refers to the written proof, of course, but also to the impossibility of proving whether Catherine really did the heavy thinking behind the mini-miracle. (Robert might’ve dictated and then explained it.)
It could refer to proof of love, when Catherine expects trust from new beau Hal, or proof of devotion: Catherine stayed in Chicago and quit college to care for her father, while Claire prospered in New York. (This is redolent of Arthur Miller, particularly in “The Price.”)
Auburn doesn’t answer all of our questions, especially the one about Catherine’s future mental state, and director Tony Wright and Roberts-Caporino are wise enough not to choose sides for us. Her scrunched shoulders and constant plucking at her garments suggest a troubled soul, and her outbursts of joy have a frantic edge, but she’s clinging to sanity pretty tenaciously.
Gray is a merry madman, cheerful in his belief that he’s still making numeric breakthroughs, and Bendert carefully walks a line between Claire’s affectionate bossiness and controlling behavior.
Miller, in his puppyish and near-stammering anxiety, makes Woody Allen seem assertive; his head, hands and torso seem to be in constant motion. He’s endearing, but I began to wonder if he, too, was succumbing to Mad Mathematician Syndrome.