A ‘Proof’ of Beauty

Charles Leggett and Anastasia Higham. Photo by John Ulman

My confidence in Strawberry Theater Workshop is high, and rightly so; their 2014 production of The Normal Heart haunts me to this day. But I might suffer from some serious form of PTSD (Previous Theater Stress Disorder), because when the very pleasant gentleman taking tickets at the door of Strawshop’s new production of Proof said, “Welcome! This is a two-hour play with a 15-minute intermission,” I almost burst into tears.

It has been my experience that one of two factors are at play when a show (that isn’t a damn musical or Shakespeare) runs more than 90 minutes: incredible quality or soul-crushing ego. Unfortunately, it’s often the latter. So you can imagine my joy and relief when the lights came up at intermission of this seamless production and I sat there in blinking disbelief that an entire hour had passed. The story, a contemporary classic by David Auburn that’s earned a Pulitzer, a Tony, and even an Anthony Hopkins/Gwyneth Paltrow film adaptation, drew me so deeply into its passions and pathos that I didn’t feel a single second blow by.

Another thing about Proof, directed here by Greg Carter, had the potential to send me into hysterics: the math. The “proof” the title refers to is the mathematical theory sort of proof—”a deductive argument for a mathematical statement.” (Yawn, headache, nap time.) I am deeply devoted to words and fear numbers the way I fear waking up with Nazi spiders in my mouth.

Luckily, when they speak about math here, it’s math as sublime poetry, an exquisite language that when fathomed spells out the very secrets of the universe: “Complex and tantalizing messages… in the air, in a pile of fallen leaves, written in the steam coming from a cup of coffee.” Math is merely a vehicle that scoots the story along. The real story here explores the paper-thin line between genius and insanity, the tense relationship between two sisters, and a halting love story that strains the frangible boundaries of lust and trust. Not to mention the underlying terror of the main character, Catherine, that she has not only inherited her father’s mathematical brilliance but his debilitating mental illness as well.

Catherine, a lovely but rather fraught young woman played with nuance and fire by Anastasia Higham, sits on a grubby old back porch near the University of Chicago drinking champagne with her father, Robert (Charles Leggett), a world-renowned mathematician. Robert, looking the proper math genius with his flyaway Bernie Sanders hair and schlubby maroon cardigan, brought Catherine the bubbly for her 25th birthday. They have a deep and penetrating father-daughter conversation as Catherine sips from the bottle. They discuss the state of her social life (non-existent) and his lifelong work (math-y). Catherine has been the sole caretaker for her father for the past five years, ever since his failing mental health made him impossible to leave alone. She shares her father’s talent for numbers, and wonders aloud if she might be at risk for sharing his mental illness as well. He father tries to reassure her. “A very good sign that you are crazy is an inability to ask the question, ‘Am I crazy'”, he says. A comforting theory, but there’s one problem: Her father has been dead for over a week.

“But you’re sitting here,” Catherine says. “You’re giving me advice! You brought me champagne!”

“Yes,” Robert answers. “And for you, my daughter, that might not be a good sign…”

Catherine’s bossy and controlling sister Claire (played beautifully by Allison Standley) and an earnest but potentially shady former student of Robert’s called Hal (the charming, wide-eyed Kevin Kelly) arrive on the scene to help settle Robert’s affairs—and provide a familial foil and a made-for-Hollywood love interest for Catherine, respectively. Each character is so engaging and expertly performed, the story so urgent and enchanting, that I still hunger to see what happened after the lights went up. If given the opportunity, I’d binge on Proof like a Netflix original. Turns out 135 minutes wasn’t long enough.