“Proof,” which ran for 917 performances in an extended run on Broadway, is a double-entendre-titled work about a mad prime number academician, and the daughter who dutifully attends to him. As his mania increases, she quietly and cautiously finds her depth, but not before one situation begets a host of hostile factorials.
Peter Callender heads the cast as Robert, the demented mathematics professor whom colleagues and students canonize. He hectors his daughter Catherine (Michelle Beck), to help him finish a proof that has been his life’s work. The problem is that he’s dead a week, and her out-loud conversations with him are making her wonder whether she has inherited his progressive dementia. Her doubts multiply with the arrival of her sister Claire (Ashley Bryant), and Hal (Lance Gardner), a student of her father’s. Hal has been slogging through Robert’s 103 notebooks hoping to find an epiphany that will impress fellow academicians. Catherine’s doubts about the outcome of Hal’s investigation reveal themselves scattershot. Her disorganized thoughts mostly question her own powers of discrimination, her sister’s and Robert’s real intentions toward her, and finally focus on the secret notebook she has left in a locked drawer in her father’s desk.
Claire, a financial strategist by profession, has an agenda. She secrets it under a tempest of trendy pop-psych lingo meant to pass for sisterly concern. In fact, Claire is gas-lighting the seemingly vulnerable Catherine. Her strategy is to imply that their father’s sole bequest to Catherine of inherited dementia means that Catherine should return with Claire to New York so Claire can care for her there. Her real game plan is to lure Catherine to New York to institutionalize her, freeing up the family home to be put up for sale.
Hal is the boilerplate gentleman caller. He is the innocent, who, unfamiliar with the family’s dysfunctional mode, becomes a plodding if quixotic transmission belt for the objectivity that presumably prevails at the campus just beyond Catherine’s reach. Hal has for years been attracted to her, and she to him, but in his single-minded conviction that her father is a genius, Catherine now sees an irritating sycophant in Hal. She wonders whether he is stringing her along to prospect for career returns that have less to do with altruism than ambition. When she decides it’s safe to entrust him with the key to the desk’s locked drawer, he discovers the proof that the (math) world has been waiting for. As he exalts her father for his breakthrough, she drops the bombshell that it is not Robert’s work he has been praising, but hers. Claire sees Catherine’s claim as a new opportunity to pathologize her. Hal chooses this moment to wonder aloud whether the proof might indeed be Robert’s and not Catherine’s. Facts, when they favor Catherine, don’t seem to count. Intentions, direct or oblique, all add up to depersonalizing her. The single individual she could depend on is a dead lunatic. Her sister is a self-appointed adversary, intent on recruiting others to any argument with the potential to bring Catherine down.
Auburn encumbers his work with a heavy burden. His theorem has some discomfiting givens: Hypothesis: Women are second-class citizens in academia, just as in life. Given: Sibling rivalry is a treacherous business. Let X equal women who suffer from math anxiety. Let Y equal women who have to work twice as hard as men to present groundbreaking evidence, not have it stolen, and win support for its authenticity and veracity. Let Z represent the tragic history of the depersonalization of women via gas lighting, institutionalizing, and lobotomy. Ergo, depression can equal a credible refuge from a life of good old boy exclusionary practices based on misogyny, lies and jealousy.
Catherine’s predicament is “intersectional,” meaning that compounded oppressive conditions compete to hold her back. The visionary choice to cast Callender in the linchpin role of Robert completes the picture. With Callender, who is Black, signed on, the artistic team decided to cast African-American actors in the remaining roles. One can debate the political merits of this decision, but not without first noting that never ever does anyone debate the merits of an all-Caucasian cast. This results in the public not only seeing a play with a black cast where race is neither a central theme nor a theme at all, but also takes in the story’s calculus in its exponential caste. Here is a professor who, wherever he goes, must carry a complete set of the “in spite of” addenda that his success in a racist society imposes. Both his daughters inherit next-gen imperatives, but as black women, if you fail to grab hold of parceled-out “opportunity,” with both hands, a post-1964 Civil Rights Bill Great Society will presume that it is justified in exacting a high price.
Auburn’s writing is mostly adroit, compassionate, and courageous. On the one hand, he gives Robert and Catherine clever analyses, analogies, and metaphors to parry, but when they speak of the mundane (him finding spaghetti boring, her disappointment with the wine he buys for the birthday she thought he forgot, or when she refers to his equations as “elegant”), the dialogue becomes dated and cliché-ridden. Perhaps he intended to introduce comic relief and intimacy into a wholly alienated set of circumstances, but it occasionally goes pedestrian, and therefore flat. For example, even though Catherine continually chugs wine as her father goes on and on, Auburn hasn’t given her enough dialogue worth slurring that could expose how drunk she’s become. This was also true of the 2005 film script, in which Gwyneth Paltrow’s Catherine does the wine chugging.
Callender has found the secret to distracting us from the script’s weaknesses. Not only does he bring a nuanced energy to the role, but shows an exceptional talent for physicalizing Robert’s duality, so that we see him as agile of body, yet lost in the confusion of the “machine” mind that is failing him. Beck’s Catherine is the most difficult role to play. She cannot compensate for weaknesses in the script as Callender does. Depression leaves her physically static. Her costume (by Noah Marin), a grey hoodie, t-shirt, and dark leggings, robs her of what little definition is written into her character’s appearance. A critic once commended a “Death of a Salesman” production based on Willie Loman being “dressed for success.” He said it underscored the contrast between Loman’s aspirations and the grim reality of his slipping-down life. For Catherine, day-glo sports apparel that has faded over time, would have both concealed and revealed the conflict twisting her into a double helix of defeat and triumph.
In spite of these impediments, Beck captured Catherine’s blunt instinct for what most working people, women, African-American men, including the so-called talented tenth, must put into play in order to survive: Scrutinize your opponent’s habits, and wait for the right moment to make your (defensive) move. Most importantly, never signal your intentions in advance.
Let the hack sociologists, male-dominated math departments, and financial strategists have their day. Beck and Callender sculpted a masterful double helix. It grows like a stairway to the stars past the givens etched into concrete by Philistines of every stripe. In Beck’s final scene with Gardner, we see Robert’s most useful legacy to Catherine: the ability to grasp that trust is not like math. It is relative, not absolute. When enough accumulates, quantity turns to quality.