By Michele Markarian
“Proof” – Written by David Auburn. Directed by Michelle M. Aguillon. Set Design by Janie E. Howland. Sound Design by Grant Furgiuele. Presented by The Nora Theatre Company, Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge through February 18.
Nothing grows well under the shade of a big tree, as any relative or friend of a largely accomplished person will tell you. Robert (Michael Tow), a recently deceased mathematician and single father of two grown daughters, is that tree. Robert is a star at the University of Chicago, revered by the community there for formulas he discovered in his early twenties. Mental illness has incapacitated him in the years before he died, forcing his younger daughter, Catherine (Lisa Nguyen) to drop out of Northwestern and care for him. Older daughter Claire (Cheryl Daro), living in New York, has given financial support to the family but little else. As Claire returns to Chicago for the funeral, she and Catherine have very different ideas of the direction Catherine’s life needs to take. In the meantime, a former student of Robert’s, Hal (Avery Bargar) has offered to carefully comb through an extensive series of notebooks Robert has left behind, scribblings he composed while Catherine was taking care of him.
The apple also doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Catherine, like her father, possesses a mathematical genius. She, as well as Claire, fears that she has inherited his illness. There are days when she cannot bring herself to eat, speak, or get out of bed. Worse, her father is in dialogue with her, even after his death. When Catherine shares a breakthrough mathematical proof with Hal and Claire that she devised, they are unwilling to believe her. Robert is an icon in academia; how could he not have written the proof himself?
Where to start with deconstructing this excellent production? First off, Proof is a really, really well constructed play. Auburn captures the dynamics of so many relationships – the controlling, have- to- be -perfect Type A oldest sibling; the laissez-faire, come-what-may youngest; the superstar system of academia; the party-hard camaraderie of scientists, pressured to make their mark in their twenties, fully believing that “by the time you’re fifty, it’s over”. Aguillon has assembled a wonderful cast whom you really believe to be family. Her naturalistic direction works well with the piece, the actors, and Janie E. Howland’s amazing set. “Central Square Theater always has the best sets”, whispered my friend to me at the top of the show, and this one is no exception. The house, with its front porch and mulched front lawn, has an interior life, like the characters. We can see the actors descending a staircase inside, ostensibly to party, do research, or make coffee, which lends itself well to the verisimilitude of the drama.
Tow captures Robert’s largesse perfectly. When well, he treats his protégé daughter with stern precision –“I realize you’ve had a difficult time,” he says to her, after having sacrificed her education to take care of him. “But it’s not an excuse. Don’t be lazy”. His one moment of mania is heartbreaking and a little frightening, as he sits shoeless in the cold Chicago winter and tries to explain the gibberish he’s writing to Catherine. Nyugen is effective in the role of Catherine. She has the ability to play many emotions at once – alternately petulant, willful, vulnerable and strong. Daro is wonderful as Claire, who really believes she is trying to do the right thing by Catherine. Bargar, who has tremendous stage presence, shines as the geeky, star struck Hal.
Grant Furgiuele’s jazzy sound design punctuates the action nicely. Let this review be proof of “Proof” and get yourself over to the Central Square Theater. For more information and tickets, go to: www.centralsquaretheater.org