'Proof' explores psychological debts
Past and present combine in play
Published: Monday, December 5, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, December 6, 2011 03:12
Last weekend, the Free Play Theatre Cooperative took on the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof in the Schwartz Auditorium. Written by David Auburn and first produced in 2000, Proof later went on to Broadway, where it earned rave reviews. It was also adapted into a 2005 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anthony Hopkins. Director Jessie Field '13 put on a poignant reenactment of the play with an intimate cast of just four actors.
The play opens in Chicago, where a young woman, Catherine (Jamie Perutz '14), is celebrating her 25th birthday with her father Robert (Dave Benger '14). The audience soon discovers that Robert is not actually alive when Catherine states somberly, "You're dead, aren't you?" It is thus illuminated that this scene is actually a hallucination, a memory or some form of flashback, as the play oscillates between reality and fantasy. This feeling of uncertainty pervades the entire production, and the audience is continually asked to question the veracity of the actions they are viewing.
Once the initial confusion is untangled through Catherine's dialogue with her father, the audience learns that Robert, a once-esteemed mathematician, has succumbed to a heart attack and his funeral is rapidly approaching. In addition to losing her father, Catherine must also deal with her overly exuberant sister Claire's (Caitlin Partridge '13) attempts to convince her to move with her to New York. In addition to that, Catherine develops a relationship with her father's former student Hal (Jonathan Plesser '13). The crux of the plot becomes her struggle to convince both him and Claire that it was she, not Robert, who wrote a mathematical proof in her father's notebook that was previously thought to be unsolvable. Amidst tragedy and loss, and beset by doubt and confusion, Catherine half-heartedly attempts to prove herself to the other characters by questioning their mistrust of the situation, but she quickly becomes exasperated.
Proof has the smallest cast of any play I have ever seen. Although such a small ensemble cast allowed for strong character growth for each individual, it was Catherine who truly changed. Initially fragile and dejected, Catherine evolves tremendously as she deals with her father's death and explores her passions with Hal. Perutz effortlessly embodies the depressed-yet-determined Catherine who is the unsung rock of her broken family, being the sole caretaker of her father throughout his illness. Perutz and Benger's father-daughter scenes were truly enchanting and managed to prove believable, even though the traditional roles of parent and child were reversed.
The difference in personalities between Catherine and Claire was also a strong aspect of Proof. In the play's second scene, the audience sees the first exchange between the sisters. The scene begins with Catherine and Claire eating breakfast as Catherine listens inattentively to her sister. Partridge's portrayal of Claire's bubbly demeanor starkly contrasted with Perutz's depiction of Catherine's dreary mood, and the sisters' dissimilar dispositions were thus clearly shown. Partridge depicted Claire wonderfully through her quick wit and self-centered demeanor. Watching this conversation revealed the nature of Claire's character, showing everything from her own selfish, small perspective. Perutz played well off of Partridge's character, responding with short aloof statements to demonstrate her disregard for her sister.
The themes of doubt and "proof" were prominent throughout the production and the characters served as astounding mediums to express them. Catherine expresses her fears to Hal about inheriting not just her father's mathematical abilities, but his insanity as well. Also, Catherine has to face Claire and Hal's skepticism of her mathematical abilities and has to simultaneously tackle her inner pain and anxiety.
Proof took place in the auditorium of Schwartz Hall without a backdrop and with very few props, mainly math notebooks and beverages. The costumes remained similar, and there was not a whole lot of movement from the characters; most of their dialogue was stationary. The simplicity let the focus fall on the actors and the plot rather than fancy backgrounds and elaborate apparel. The play ran for two hours, and the pacing worked well, giving enough time for plot development that relied on flashbacks to prior years of Catherine's life.
Proof contained an abstract compilation of advanced math, mental instability, love and family pressures. The continual question of doubt manifests itself in every aspect of the play with an air of suspense present throughout that kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end.