Maybe it's the demise of Marxism with it's cynical exaltation of "the worker!" But the intellectual hero is making a comeback. The 1999 Pulitzer went to Wit, a play about a John Donne scholar with terminal cancer. The 2000 Tony went to Copenhagen, a play about a wartime meeting between two Nobel Laureates apropos of the atomic bomb. And the 2001 Pulitzer went to proof, a play about a mathematical genius, who goes off the deep end and is nursed by his daughter (who is herself a mathematical genius).
Proof by David Auburn (currently on the boards at Rivertown Rep) is an ingeniously constructed drama that tracks that most ancient of subjects -- parents and their children -- in an odd, cerebral subculture. To give you an idea of this mixture of the homey and the arcane, the first scene shows a woman, Catherine, sitting on the veranda of the pleasant old family home in Chicago at one o'clock in the morning. Catherine gives a feeling of disconsolate, smoldering angst. She is approached by her father, who badgers her about wasting her time and talent. But, it's clear he loves and values her. He offers her a bottle of cheap champagne, for today is her birthday. The relationship between the troubled, troubling daughter and the hectoring but affectionate father is so recognizable, one has the feeling half the audience can see themselves in the roles. Until, that is, the father makes a crack about "the largest Germain prime number" and the daughter snaps back, by way of correction, that the number in question is actually "ninety-two thousand, three hundred and five times two to the sixteen thousand nine hundred ninety eighth."
The play takes place on the day of the father's funeral, which is coincidentally (and symbolically) the daughter's birthday -- for the theme of genetic inheritance is much in the air. Several times before reaching the age of 25, the father had astounded the mathematical world with long-sought "proofs" -- that is, solutions to mathematical inconsistencies or unresolved implications. In fact, one of the many fascinating bits of gossip we learn about the realm of higher mathematics is that most great discoveries are made at a precociously early age and that, as a result, aging mathematicians suffer from a dreadful anxiety.
In any case, the father has a serious mental breakdown. He becomes feverishly excited, convinced he is deciphering the deepest truths -- but alas, it's all gibberish. For instance, at one point, he thinks aliens are sending him messages via the Dewey decimal numbers on library books. This makes us laugh, when dropped in an acidly humorous way by Catherine to deflate Hal, a 28-year-old mathematician who studied under her father and is going over his posthumous writings in the hope of uncovering something of value. But when we see (in a flashback) the painful reality of the man's disintegration and its effect on his daughter, we are appalled and deeply moved. Only then do we grasp the grief and fear that make her so difficult to deal with.
The cast, under Keith Briggs' direction, makes this rarified world real and compelling. Basically, the play is a love story, and not an easy one to get right. The man, Hal, is bright, talented and, above all, decent. The woman, Catherine, is not merely bright, she is brilliant, inspired (in her peculiarly abstract field). But she is also withdrawn and belligerent. Yvette Hargis gives us an uncompromising, testy, damaged and, ultimately, attractive Catherine. Chad Carvell is spot-on as a young man who has the emotional depth -- despite his "human, all too human" flaws -- to be her partner. John Hammons provides a prepossessing father, and in an incandescent moment, takes us on a descent into the labyrinth of complete delusion -- before the horrified eyes of his gradually comprehending daughter. The scene is restrained and devastating. Janet Daley is effective as Claire, Catherine's less gifted, more practical sibling.
A quick word of thanks. Loyola University recently brought Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka to town for the American premiere of Camwood on the Leaves, a text Soyinka wrote for radio when he was 19. Lane Savadove directed the piece, which he set in an abstracted African landscape. A mixed-race cast of students played the villagers, sometimes to considerable effect -- although nothing would have been lost by less shouting. Soyinka, with his white hair and beard, looked very much "the elder." His talk, as elegant as his appearance, stressed the importance of tolerance -- a concept he said was inherent in the Yoruba religion.
- Catherine (Yvette Hargis) and her father (John Hammons) try to solve the equation of their relationship in Rivertown Rep's current mounting of proof.