- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

What is it about female mathematicians that drives some playwrights to such rhapsodic heights? First, it was Tom Stoppard’s delicate, heart-wrenching portrait of Thomasina, the adolescent math prodigy who captured the heart and undying devotion of her tutor in “Arcadia.” Now we have Catherine (Keira Naughton), a 25-year-old math genius who fears she has inherited both her father’s beautiful mind and his madness, in David Auburn’s finely wrought “Proof.”

Both Catherine and Thomasina surpass their male teachers and are natural geniuses who see numbers and patterns in the shape of a leaf, the arc of the afternoon light. While Thomasina was born too soon, Catherine’s tragedy is that she has been touched by the fire of her father’s vast creativity — and been singed by it.

Miss Naughton plays Catherine with that combination of intellectual arrogance and social awkwardness that marks the young and gifted. Catherine’s exchanges with people are fueled by sarcasm and pain — every carefully articulated syllable is a thumbtack aimed at their tender spots.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a beautifully constructed piece, blending psychological drama with romance and elements of an intellectual whodunit. While the advanced mathematics sketched out in “Proof” form the basis for the play, it is essentially about relationships — between father and daughter, siblings and two persons in the early stages of a love affair.

The play takes place on the back porch of a ramshackle house near the University of Chicago owned by Robert (Michael Rudko), a math visionary who made great discoveries while in his early 20s but spent the majority of his later years battling insanity. “Proof” opens on the eve of his funeral as his daughter Catherine, his caretaker during the last — and worst — five years, waits for her sister Claire (Susan Lynskey) to arrive from New York.

Catherine is at a crossroads. She dropped out of school to care for her father at home, and now she is exhausted, depressed and grieving. Catherine doesn’t know who she is or what she wants anymore — and she is keeping a secret about herself that is both amazing and terrifying.

Mr. Auburn masterfully ratchets the psychological pressures on Catherine, which build when Claire — caring but overbearing and bossy — arrives. In contrast to the prickly, articulate Catherine, Claire acts as if she just stepped from the pages of a women’s magazine — sharply dressed, successful, spouting buzzwords and advice.

The two sisters pick their way through an emotional minefield, struggling with the death of their father and the real specter of the manic-depression that engulfed him and may be present in Catherine’s brain chemistry.

To make things more intense, there is the character of Hal (Barnaby Carpenter), one of Robert’s former students, who is combing his notebooks in search of something brilliant. After a drunken post-funeral bash, Hal and Catherine tentatively, tenderly become lovers, giving off such a sexual charge you can feel it from the stage.

Catherine’s relationship with her father is brought to life in a series of flashbacks, the most magical one taking place during Robert’s months of mental clarity. It is five years earlier. Catherine is going off to study math at Northwestern, and Robert is having one of his good days. On this sunny September day, you can see that Catherine and Robert are two peas in a pod — the creator and the creation have such elegant minds, but they are full of love and warmth and life as well.

“Proof” satisfies on multiple levels — intellectual, emotional and psychological. The four well-delineated and tightly interwoven characters are heightened by a quartet of superior performances. They range from Miss Naughton’s wounded rancor as Catherine and Miss Lynskey’s desperately capable Claire to Mr. Carpenter’s sympathetic and ingratiating turn as Hal and Mr. Rudko’s poignant evocation of a man both blessed and cursed when the numbers started talking to him.

Wendy C. Goldberg’s sharp, perceptive direction keeps all the disparate elements aloft, and the production moves with the grace of a mathematical equation. Miss Goldberg also hatched the clever idea of enhancing the back-porch set so it is surrounded by the detritus of a mathematician’s life — prime numbers, chalkboards, heaps of notebooks and scholarly texts.

“Proof” is a nearly flawless examination of the life of the mind and the interrelationship of creativity and madness.

****

WHAT: “Proof” by David Auburn

WHERE: Arena Stage, Kreeger Theater, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Nov. 23.

TICKETS: $35 to $53

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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