Confession: before I saw director Charles Newell’s interpretation of “Proof,” now at Court Theatre, I thought of David Auburn’s millennial Broadway effort as just another formulaic, moderately clever construction — albeit one with the uncommon motif of mathematics. My mathematician daughter took offense at the very notion that the play’s central character, 25-year-old Catherine, a self-taught numbers hobbyist, would be able to understand, let alone construct, the sort of proof that had eluded trained academicians. Were we seriously meant to believe that Catherine’s ability was in the DNA she shared with her newly deceased father, Robert, a noted mathematician at the University of Chicago?
That question becomes less important in Newell’s production. This “Proof” isn’t a whodunit, obsessed with determining the authorship of a notebook discovered in the late professor’s study, as it is in too many previous productions. Rather it becomes an exploration of identity and family ties. Will Catherine be doomed to inherit her father’s insanity along with that math gene? That is the larger question.
Newel’s version is so refreshingly different in its approach that it’s hard to believe it’s the same script. But the old, fairly corny jokes are there about nerdy mathematicians and partying physicists. The lines get a little added resonance from the stage of Court Theatre, on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park, where the theatrical characters live and where the playwright was a real-life student. In a flashback scene when Catherine announces that she believes her mentally ill father is well enough for her to take a break from her caregiver duties and enroll at Northwestern, Robert’s sneering “Northwestern?” draws a big laugh. “You actually want to live in Evanston?”
With the production already in its authentic home, there is no need to prove it. Martin Andrew’s subtle scenic design eschews the detailed Hyde Park back porch depicted in standard productions for a barebones set that places the focus where it belongs, on the play’s four characters. In Newell’s production, each of those four is perfectly cast, and their nuanced performances allow new dimensions of Auburn’s script to surface.
At the center of the play is Catherine, played by Chaon Cross with engaging physicality, at one moment isometric in her movements — we can see her thinking — and at another using a splintery porch swing as a graceful acrobat. Cross is a marvel in the role. Kevin Gudahl’s self-assured performance as Robert joins acerbic wit with madness while rightly underplaying both characteristics to make an ideal foil for Cross.
Erik Hellman is appealing and believable as Hal, Robert’s one-time graduate student now teaching at U of C himself, and Megan Kohl brings warmth to the role of Catherine’s sister Claire, a trait missing from most productions, where the character can languish as a brittle stereotype. In a scene where Hal and Claire discuss Catherine’s mental state in hushed tones, Newell places Hal and Claire as shadowy silhouettes behind a translucent screen, magnifying their images and their whispers in a crafty stroke of stage business that at once minimizes and maximizes their words. The proof of theatrical genius is knowing when to underplay, something that Newell and these fine performers get right at every turn.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago
Extended through April 14, 2013
Box office: (773) 753-4472 or www.CourtTheatre.org
Photos: Michael Brosilow