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review of proof

by Alan Nelson

I fell in love with David Auburn’s play the first time I saw it. But as it ended, I turned to my then 12-year-old son and saw he had his mouth open. “Is that it?” he said. “They talk about maths for two hours and then it finishes?” So, I understand that despite its Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, a play seemingly about maths and academia with a soppy love story thrown in is not an easy sell to everyone, and for that reason among others BLT is to be congratulated for staging it.

The reaction to the original Broadway production was largely positive, but many writers could not resist the unhelpful and all too obvious comparison with Tom Stoppard. Reviewing in The Guardian, Lyn Gardner gave it two stars and wrote, “Intellect and emotion collide to no real purpose in David Auburn’s shallow family drama … In the hands of a playwright such as Tom Stoppard, this might have been a fascinating and multi-layered piece.”

Even the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, one organisation that you won’t be surprised to hear welcomed the play, couldn’t resist the comparison: “David Auburn is no Tom Stoppard but his play is a gem.”

But this misses the point. Where Stoppard so often stirs the intellect but not the heart, this production of Proof is quite the reverse, merely tickling the intellect but positively rousing the heart. And the audience loved it for that.

The play is a four-hander. Robert is a maths academic. Played with sensitivity, pathos and a little menace by Chris Cullen, he was brilliant in his youth, doing ground-breaking work, but by his late 20s he had become plagued by madness. As the play starts, Robert has died. He is a strange contradiction: dead but not dead. Now only coming to life in Catherine’s imagination and in each of the characters’ memories, he is still in many ways the central character of all their lives. He has been their reason and purpose; a massive figure. Now he is dead, that has gone. The irony is that it had already gone, his madness removing his authority. In their own way, each of the characters has refused to accept that he had left years before.

The central character, Catherine, is Robert’s daughter. She seems to have inherited at least some of her father’s mathematical genius but fears she may also have inherited his madness. Thoroughly engaging throughout, Barbara Frenzel’s Catherine was a beautifully judged combination of defiant young adult and nerd. She was combative and loveable in equal measures.

Hal is one of Robert’s final PhD students, and is now a junior maths academic, making his way with a growing sense of his own limitations. Luke Dahill pulled off the feat of being believable as both a cool and desirable suitor for Catherine and an authentic maths geek.

Finally, Claire, Catherine’s older sister, is the successful and capable opposite to the warm and laid-back Catherine. Claire left her father and sister behind to make a career in New York and sent money to help. Stepping in late in the day to take over this part, Heather Phelps is to be congratulated for creating a believable counterpoint to Barbara Frenzel’s Catherine. More practical but less warm, the older sister not only offers a contrast but holds a mirror up to the rest of the cast.

The drama is provided by three relationships.

Catherine and her father are warm and affectionate towards each other. In Chris Cullen’s hands, Robert’s paternalism occasionally became controlling, even stifling, and this gave the relationship an extra believability. Is it a coincidence that he loses his sanity again just as Catherine looks like she might finally be breaking free?

Catherine and Claire share a deep animosity towards each other. Catherine resents Claire for not having been there. Claire resents Catherine for having wasted her life while looking down on her sister. The yeast in the mix is money. Claire is certainly assuaging her guilt by paying it down; Catherine has the temerity to accept the financial assistance while remaining superior.

But it was the third relationship, and perhaps the most straight-forward, that made me love this production. I had never previously seen the play as an old-fashioned love story but that is exactly what the Catherine/Hal relationship is. Boy meets girl. Girl is aloof and unobtainable. Boy and girl get together. Boy messes up and lets girl down. Girl rejects boy. Boy works to regain girl’s confidence. Girl and boy end happily together in their geeky maths heaven. And I for one was rooting for them to get together. Big plaudits to both Luke Dahill and Barbara Frenzil for finding the romance without ever smothering it in sentimentality.

In the end, it is Catherine’s rediscovery of the world of maths, with Hal’s guidance and encouragement, that is her salvation and finally allows her to shed the stifling influence of her father.

Alongside this, the play explores two main themes: the concept of greatness and the brilliance of youth. In maths, Auburn has chosen an unforgiving field, where even the brightest minds are clearly distinguishable from the truly brilliant, and much of the best work is done in youth with mathematicians from their mid-twenties onwards struggling to regain their former brilliance.

Colleen Batson’s production brought these themes out subtly without labouring the point. Each of the characters lives in the shadow of greatness and each of their reactions to this is different: Catherine loves and tends it; Claire accepts her comparative normality and focuses on practicalities; and Hal is gradually coming to terms with his stature as a journeyman mathematician. Through these different reactions, you are skilfully drawn to the conclusion that lives can be special for many reasons, and they are not second rate if they are not brilliant.

I can’t end this review without mentioning the set, which provided the perfect backdrop to the drama. I was entirely convinced there was a whole house behind those back doors. I believed they were in the back yard of a big house in the Chicago suburbs. I loved the big plants that gave the whole setting a sense of a long past and a future at odds with Claire’s plans for a quick sale. Well done Jan Greenhough.

But most of all I still love the play, all the more so because of the way the romantic story was played out by two faces new to BLT, Barbara Frenzel and Luke Dahill. Last year’s production of Jumpy won both awards for best newcomer. I can’t help thinking that Colleen Batson has done it again.