The Dividing Line
Proof hits the mark between madness and genius
THE NOTEBOOK: Hal and Catherine make beautiful math together.
The title of David Auburn’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof is a mathematical term defined by an online math thesaurus as “an argument with a careful logical justification for each step. It is well constructed enough that it must always be correct; there are no exceptions. When something has been proved we know that it is as true as it possibly can be.” If a flawless proof is challenging to come by in math, it’s even more difficult in life, where variables are multiple and inconstant.
Proof isn’t a play about math as much as math is a character and a metaphor for the complex problems in personal relationships. Charles Miller, who heads the theater department at Pellissippi State, is directing the Actors Co-op’s production. “ Math is really the canvas on which the play’s painted,” he says. The major theme—or question seeking proof—is this: if genius can be inherited, can madness be too?
That riddle gnaws at Catherine, the 25-year-old daughter of Robert, a genius mathematician who, when the play opens, has just died. Catherine, too, may be a genius, but that hypothesis is unproven because she spent most of her college years taking care of her father, whose brilliant mind gradually unraveled. Upon his death, in the midst of her grief, Catherine must deal with his legacy of extraordinary smarts and debilitating dementia. And then there’s her sister Claire, who arrives for the funeral, and Hal, one of Robert’sadoring students. It’s enough to make any girl go insane, let alone one who may be biologically predisposed.
Miller says Catherine’s anxiety stems from the fact that her time to be a genius, to make her mark on the field of mathematics, is running out. “They’re kind of like swimmers,” he says. “Once they’re in their 30s, their careers are over. People make their great discoveries when they’re quite young. After a certain period of time, they just don’t do it anymore.” He mentions John Nash, the Nobel-winning mathematician and subject of A Beautiful Mind , Sylvia Nasar’s book and Ron Howard’s film starring Russell Crowe as the genius whose paranoid schizophrenia almost spelled his doom. But we don’t have to be blue-ribbon mathletes to fear losing those skills and traits that make us special, give us identities.
“I know a lot of people face that fear when they think about Alzheimer’s,” says Miller. “I think it’s a very similar thing. This idea that you’d have this incredible gift given to you and then have it suddenly taken away is a really amazing subject.”
Proof isn’t a barrel of laughs, but it’s not entirely a bummer, either. Despite her understandabledefensiveness, Catherine remains capable of humor—and hope. Her tug of war with Hal would almost be flirtatious if it weren’t so saturated with paranoia and distrust. Does this grad student want a piece of his professor’s legacy that might be contained in one of his 103 notebooks, or does he want Catherine’s companionship?
“I think he wants both,” says Jenny Ballard, who portrays Catherine. “I think that obviously he is hoping to find something of her dad’s he can run with. I don’t think he’s trying to pass it off as his own. I think he’s a well-intentioned guy.”
The actress sees her character as a young woman operating out of anger, fear and a certain amount of need, and in Hal (James Francis) she finds someone who not only respects her father (Jacques Durand) but can understand her in a way no one else does—through math.
Ballard also believes Catherine isn’t quite ready toenter the wide world on her own. “I think she wants someone to take care of her. I think she’s a very strong, independent person, no doubt about it. But I think that in Hal she finds someone who’s fit to be her partner.”
Ballard says she anticipates that many audience members won’t like Catherine, who defends herself with snide remarks and harsh barbs. “I’m trying to bring out the humane side of Catherine,” says Ballard, who infuses the flashback scenes with a carefree attitude that her present-day character can’t attain through her grief and confusion. “I think it’s important that the soft, scared child side of Catherine comes into play. She’s obviously a good person; she’s taken care of her dad for several years. She’s a good girl, but she doesn’t feel like she has any allies.”
The play’s most contentious pairing is Catherine and her older sister Claire, who swoops into Chicago to coordinate the funeral, sell the house and take her possibly unstable sister back to New York. That Claire is played by Ballard’s friend of seven years, Sarah Campbell, provides an interesting on-stage opportunity for the actresses.
“Sarah and I have such a dynamic going into it, it’s easy to react like siblings,” Ballard says. “At the same time, it’s kind of scary because we’ve taken some of the antagonistic moments and turned them into really nasty moments.” Think passive-aggressive retorts, awkward hugs and barely contained seething. “But that’s exactly how it would be,” Ballard adds. “There’s obviously affection on a certain level, but I think the way we’re playing it that it’s buried very deep under lots of pain and resentment.”
For such a small-scale play—four characters in one setting— Proof packs a serious punch, which explains the whole Pulitzer thing, says Miller.
“This is four people talking to each other about family and destiny, and in a fairly quiet way,” he says. “You just don’t see stuff that does that that’s also beautifully written.”
What: Actors Co-op presents Proof by David Auburn