Local Arts Reviews


Proof: Uncertainty Principle

State Theater, through October 28

Running Time: 2 hr, 5 min

Given their field of expertise, you would think that mathematicians would be surer of themselves. After all, theirs is the realm of rational numbers, balanced equations, immutable behavior established through proofs. But in David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Proof, the men and women who eat, sleep, and breathe math are unsure about many things: the work they do, the methods they use, their professional standing, their age, their waning intellect, their sex appeal, even their sanity. The field in which they labor is one of elegance, but the lives they live are anything but. They are cluttered, unkempt, as disordered as the rambling, ramshackle house near the University of Chicago where the play's action unfolds.

The State Theater Company production captures the uncertainty of this world. On the back porch of this fading, two-story brick hulk -- David Potts' set is a monumental blend of detail and decay -- we see a father and daughter tentatively reach out to each other in an attempt to recover some long-lost degree of intimacy. It's awkward, though. The dad, a genius who revolutionized mathematics while in his early twenties, suffered a mental breakdown later that left him unable to continue his work or care for himself, and the daughter, Catherine, sacrificed her own pursuit of a mathematical career to care for him. Now, she is here on her 25th birthday, essentially alone, unsure of her future, unsure whether she can claim her father's genius for math and fearful that all he has really passed on to her is, in the words of her straight-arrow sister Claire, "a tendency toward instability." Complicating matters further is the arrival of Claire, who wants Catherine to leave Chicago for New York, where she lives (and can find Catherine psychiatric treatment, Catherine is sure), and the presence of Hal, a former pupil of her father's, who appears interested in not only her father's old papers but in Catherine herself.

What plays out on this old back porch is, as staged by Michelle Polgar, a delicate dance of insecurities -- abnormally bright people carefully trying to maneuver around emotions, their own and those of the people they care for. As the father, Harvey Guion provides a tender portrait of a man overly conscious of his own infirmity and the degree to which it has cheated his daughter of her own life; he tries to make it up to her with cheery exhortations of support, but there is an echo of sadness in them, shaded as they are with regret. Jessica Hedrick's Claire, as crisply ordered as a column of numbers in a ledger, tries a similar tack, chatting up Catherine about hair care and skin products, as if chummy girl talk will lessen the distance, geographically and psychologically, between them. Ron Berry puts his talent for conveying spontaneity to good use here, allowing his smitten math geek to trip all over himself trying to cozy up to and decide what to believe about this mathematician's daughter. As the figure these three are waltzing around, Mary Hammett appears to be a woman not at home in her own body. She shuffles across the stage, shoulders hunched and arms dangling, her words coming forth in irregular patterns, as if she's slightly out of sync with her life -- and of course, Catherine is just that. The life she wanted, a life of balanced equations and elegant mathematical proofs, was lost to her as it was to her father, and she may not be able to find a substitute without proving to Claire and Hal just what she is capable of, and that may be impossible to do.

The trouble with life, these characters come to see, is that its problems, unlike the ones in math, have no clear-cut answers. They resist solutions. They confound proofs. So to deal with them, one frequently has to embrace that which is the opposite of proof: faith. The production ends on a touching note, with these disciples of the verifiable recognizing that sometimes one must simply trust in others. The beautiful paradox it offers is that you still live in uncertainty, yet you are finally sure of yourself.

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Proof, David Auburn, State Theater Company, David Potts, Michelle Polgar, LuAnn Aronson, George McDaniels, Bob Dorian, Michael G. Hawkins, Fred Barton, Damon Kirsche, Kevin Greene

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