Proof | 9.29.10-10.10.10

Catherine is a legitimate genius, and she would have made her father proud had he not been too ill to recognize it.

In chronicling the identity crisis of its heroine Catherine, an awkward, sarcastic 24-year-old with a mouth like a sailor, “Proof,” written by David Auburn, hits a nerve that would send pangs of recognition through twenty-somethings everywhere. Catherine, played by a melodramatic Colleen Caul, is disappointed. After showing incredible promise in childhood, she expected to follow in the footsteps of her father Robert (John Contini)—an unparalleled genius who had revolutionized three separate fields of mathematics before he turned 25. But Robert was also severely mentally ill, and Catherine has devoted the past four years of her life to caring for him.
The play begins in the week after his death, on Catherine’s 25th birthday. She is a floundering college dropout, struggling with depression and afraid that she is genetically doomed to lose her mind. At first, Caul’s ever-withering tone (think Lucille from “Arrested Development”) seems a bit over the top. But as the play progresses, we see that anti-social Catherine nevertheless has a taste for drama, and Caul’s choices make sense for her character.
Besides Catherine and Robert, the play includes Catherine’s overbearing older sister, Claire (Erin Kelley) and Hal (Matthew Linhardt), a well-meaning, if tactless, doctoral student. Hal revered Robert, and is now determined to scour endless pages of nonsensical, illness-induced scribblings for any undiscovered trace of the old man’s former brilliance.
Catherine feels like a failure by her father’s standards (this is made clear in the opening scene, in which an imagined version of her dead father makes her tally the amount of time she has wasted in bed, to the hour). In response, she has formed a thick layer of protective cynicism. She fires off strings of expletives, shoves Hal around, searches his belongings and even calls the police on him. But Hal borrows some plot points from “The Taming of the Shrew” and decides it is his responsibility to sweep in and save Catherine from herself.
This is the crux of the play. Catherine is not a damsel in distress. She is not, in fact, a failure, or even merely average. Although she does not fit neatly into her sister Claire’s college/grad school/illustrious career model of success (her sister acts as a great stand-in here for the broader expectations of society), she is nonetheless a genius every bit as gifted as Robert, if not more so. This fact comes to light in a series of developments that redeem Catherine while calling Hal’s character into question.
After Catherine and Hal spend the night together, she gives him a key and tells him to open the bottom drawer of her father’s desk. In it he finds a notebook containing a groundbreaking proof—a proof that, if correct, would guarantee the author instant respect and notoriety. As Hal jumps around, starry-eyed, imagining how his colleagues will respond to his discovery of what he assumes to be Robert’s unpublished work, Catherine blurts out that she wrote the proof. Claire (who wakes up just in time to interject her opinion in this argument) doesn’t believe her, and to her dismay, neither does Hal. He insists, despite evidence to the contrary, that Robert must have been the author.
Catherine slumps into a deep depression, but Auburn never fully calls her sanity into question. If the audience is meant to doubt the truth of her claims, it is only for a moment. The play quickly provides flashbacks to verify Catherine’s authorship of the proof. She is a legitimate genius, and she would have made her father proud had he not been too ill to recognize it.
Near the end of the play we see more complexity to Claire’s character. Kelley and director Wayne Loui do a maddeningly spectacular job of putting her character in the way of the action, both physically and metaphorically. Claire flaps around the stage using her body to try and pen Catherine in, seemingly unsure what to do with her hands when not attending to someone. Later, as she looks over the newly discovered proof with Hal, she wistfully explains that Catherine got most of their father’s mathematical brilliance. We get a hint of the pain Claire must have felt growing up as the less favored daughter, shut out of her father and sister’s world. Hal also gets a chance to redeem himself, although some audience members might dismiss his apology to Catherine as too little, too late.
This is a story about the ravages of mental illness, the sexism still present in academia and the traits we inherit from our parents, both wanted and unwanted. Catherine does need to be rescued, but she must be the rescuer. Neither Hal nor Claire can save her from depression or tell her what to do with her life. Nor is she doomed to repeat her father’s descent into mental illness, at least not based on anything the audience is shown. Instead, she must form her own identity and succeed on her own terms, a challenge that can seem every bit as frightening as the idea of being assigned a fate by her genes.
In 2001 “Proof” was awarded The Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Tony Award for Best Play, and the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play. The Insight Theatre Company will be presenting the play at The Heagney Theater on the campus of Nerinx Hall from Wednesday, Sept. 29 through Sunday, Oct. 10, 2010. Tickets are $15 and $25 in advance ($20 and $30 at the door), and are available on-line at or by phone at 314-239-9040. | Taban Salem

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