Proof by David Auburn
David Auburn’s bittersweet, suspenseful two act drama, “Proof,” was originally produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club in May 2000. Suzanne Birrell is the current director for her production (Birrell/Jones) now playing at Exit Theatre at 156 Eddy, in San Francisco through October 29 and 30th. I strongly advise you to see it. Off Market, Powell BARTand MUNI station, #27 Muni bus.
Gabrielle Patacsil plays Catherine, the tormented daughter of Robert (a brilliant Kevin Copps), a mathematical genius on the verge of solving a mathematical conundrum that has stumped great minds for centuries. Like John Forbes Nash, Jr. – – played by Oscar winner Russell Crowe in the film “A Beautiful Mind” – – he suffers a breakdown, but unlike Forbes, dies before he can complete his work. Catherine has inherited her father’s genius and is deeply concerned that she may have inherited his mental illness as well. There is not one false note in Ms. Patacsil’s portrayal of Catherine. She plays the fragile Catherine with nuanced emotions, striking the right chords in her relationship with her father and sister, Claire (Theresa Adams), as well as one of her father’s former students, Hal (a delightful, engaging Eric Reid), now a mathematics professor himself, and self-described geek who also plays drums in a garage rock band that manages to get minor local gigs.
The action takes place on the back porch of their old, drafty house in Chicago, on a simple set consisting of wicker furniture and a wooden table and chairs. The play centers around Catherine’s birthday, September 4th, opening with a scene between her and Robert, who pressures her to celebrate and do something to overcome her depression. They discuss “craziness.” Robert says, “Crazy people don’t ask if they’re crazy.” And that a crazy person would never admit that they are crazy. Still, crazy people don’t know they are crazy. At the end of the scene, we realize he is an hallucination.
Theresa Adams is spot on as Claire, Catherine’s sister, with believable concern for her sibling to assuage her guilt, perhaps? Claire has come from New York for their father’s funeral and tries to persuade her sister to move there with her – – one of the many conflicts that surface between them. Catherine is paranoid about her father’s work about which he has written extensively in hundreds of notebooks he has kept in his study. Hal has been called in to organize his notebooks. In one scene, as he is leaving, Catherine believes he has stolen one. They argue; she pulls off his backpack, which struck me as somewhat unlikely in that she comes off as frail and listless and he – – an able-looking guy. Still, this is a minor point and in no way affects the play’s overall strengths.
Unless you have a program and refer to it throughout, it’s possible to be confused. Where the scenes in Act One are chronological, the first scene in Act Two jumps back four years to when Robert was at his best and we see a happy father-daughter relationship. The scene that follows, flashes back to immediately after the last scene in the first act where guilt, blame, jealousy, and mistrust arise between the sisters. Catherine the genius had dropped out of college to care for her father for four years during his illness while homemaker, fashion-maven Claire (she bought Catherine a little black dress for the funeral) stayed in New York, rarely calling. A turning point in the play happens when Claire drops a metaphorical bomb on her sister, undermining what little security she has left.
Director Birrell dealt delicately with Copps portrayal of Robert’s descent into madness in Act Two, which takes place some three years in the past. In a brief chat with her during intermission, she said that Copps nails it. Barefoot, sitting outside in the cold Chicago winter, he appears not only tortured, but to age and shrink within himself as Catherine, on a break from college, tries to make sense of his rambling notes which he has asked her to read. Sadly, she realizes, not at all the work of a brilliant mind, but as one who has lost it.
A startling find is revealed about Catherine’s own work which furthers her father’s. She entrusts it to Hal and an issue of trust enters the picture. The proof that it is hers resides in how her father noted his work as compared to Catherine. In the final moments of the last scene, whether it was intentional or not on the director’s part, as Catherine gets ready to leave with Claire, she buttons her coat wrong which gives us an insight to her emotional instability.
Some have said that Auburn’s “Proof” is a dark, depressing play and have staged it as such. Yet throughout, there is humor, especially between Robert when he was well and Catherine, and in her playfulness with Hal. There is a fine balance finding humor in a play dealing with the serious subject of mental illness, as well as in portraying insanity and genius. The actors’ physicality throughout was true, seemingly spontaneous. Suzanne Birrell is the rare director who lets her actors take time to think during a scene. She is not afraid of pauses and trusts her actors to convey their character’s inner workings in stillness.
Crystal Nezgoda not only worked up the perfect wardrobe for the actors to embody their characters, but is also Assistant Director. Chuck Jones designed the sound; the haunting, original music was composed by Suzanne Birrell.
October 24, 2010