Actors lean on each other

Review: `Proof' gets right to the heart of a strong and sustaining father-daughter relationship.

February 28, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The real beauty of David Auburn's 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Proof, isn't in the cerebral sphere of higher mathematics that underlies the plot. It's in a far more accessible area - the heart.

Proof is a drama about the love between a father and a daughter - love that is unconditional, nurturing, caring, supportive and unending. It endures beyond the grave. It's also a play about legacies, both positive and negative.

In the touring production at the Mechanic Theatre, Chelsea Altman plays Catherine, the 25-year-old daughter of a recently deceased mathematics professor at the University of Chicago. Devoted to her father, she has spent the past five years caring for him, watching his mind deteriorate but remaining determined to keep him from being institutionalized.

By the time her father, Robert, was her age, he had made several revolutionary discoveries, but he was also beginning to slip into the mental illness that ended his creative career. Blessed with mathematical abilities that may rival his, Catherine is terrified that she may also be cursed with his mental instability.

Auburn's opening scene gives us a glimpse of the bond between father and daughter, and of the frightening specter of madness. It's almost 1 a.m. on a September night. Catherine can't sleep, and her father - portrayed with gentle warmth by Robert Foxworth - is concerned. They chat, and he surprises her with a bottle of champagne for her birthday.

Although their conversation includes some fancy mathematical figuring as well as a discussion of Catherine's fears of inherited insanity, this could be a late-night chat between any loving father and daughter, with one major exception - Robert has been dead for a week.

Proof isn't exactly a ghost story, but it's not strictly naturalistic, either. By introducing the character of the dead father, Auburn emphasizes the notion - deeply compelling to anyone who has ever lost anyone dear to him - that those we love always are with us.

In flashbacks and in Robert's posthumous moments, the father-daughter closeness is undeniable. It's there in the easy way Altman leans her head against him, when Foxworth stands beside her chair; it's there when she gushes with enthusiasm after Robert claims to have begun some new, important work; and it's there when he flares up at the idea that Catherine is going to leave him to enroll in college at Northwestern.

But Proof isn't just a father-daughter story. There's also a strong element of mystery. Catherine is visited by two characters who are very much alive: her take-charge sister Claire (Tasha Lawrence), who flies in from New York to attend the funeral, and one of her father's former students, Hal (Stephen Kunken).

Hal has coerced Catherine into letting him go through her father's papers, on the off-chance that there may be a jewel hidden in the pages of gibberish that Robert produced during his illness. And indeed, after Catherine literally hands him a key, he uncovers what appears to be a breakthrough proof. But the proof's authorship is in question, and the solution to this mystery may have more impact on Catherine's sanity than any genetic trait.

The rapport is exquisite between Altman and Foxworth (both of whom have appeared at Center Stage - Altman in Eric Bogosian's Griller and Foxworth as the title character in Brecht's Galileo). Geniuses see the world differently from the rest of us; as a result, they may find our world an uncomfortable place. Only when they are together are Catherine and Robert truly at ease.

Under Daniel Sullivan's direction, however, Altman's performance initially is too similar to that of the actress who originated the role, Mary-Louise Parker, right down to the moping posture and flat vocal tones. Thankfully, more of Altman's individuality surfaces after intermission.

In the supporting roles, Kunken portrays Hal as an over-eager, self-acknowledged geek, who also can be sympathetic, and even Lawrence's patronizing Claire manages to come off as well-meaning, if extremely wrong-headed.

The broad brick porch created by set designer John Lee Beatty offers a visual metaphor for Robert's decline; it shows us a once-sturdy house whose cluttered interior has fallen into disrepair.

A play about death and mental disability, Proof ultimately is affirmative and uplifting. Strong central characters, an engrossing plot, flashes of humor and universal themes - well, you do the math. It all adds up to the welcome introduction of a gifted new American playwright.

Proof

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m., 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $17.50-$60

Call: 410-752-1200

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