Event: Proof- A play by David Auburn (2000)
Performers: 4th level Students, Juilliard Drama Department
Directed by: Harris Yulin
Date: November 11, 2010
What if your father, a brilliant mathematician, cared for by you in his last, insanity-clouded years, died and left behind a notebook full of groundbreaking mathematical theorems that you claim as yours, not his, which leaves you and people about you wondering whether you had inherited either his genius or his insanity?
This is the chief question of “Proof”, the Tony-award winning play by David Auburn later made into a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins. It is also a meditation on father-daughter relationships, and the choices we make in the face of a parent who, previously brilliant and vital, has slowly sunk into the ravages of dementia.
‘’Proof” is a four-person play. I had never seen the movie in its entirety, judging it to be boring (it was a flop when it opened), so this production by the 4th level students of the Juilliard Drama department was my chance to judge it on its merits as a play.
The play was directed by Harris Yulin, a professor at Juilliard and an Equity actor familiar from his many supporting roles in TV and films. In the cast was Yulin as Robert, the father, Justine Lope-Schomp as Catherine, Cameron Scoggins as Hal, and Jo Mei, as Claire. In accordance with race-blind casting, Catherine is played by a blonde Caucasian and Claire by a dark-haired Asian. Normally this would strain credulity if this was played on commercial theater, but Juilliard is a multi-ethnic school, so everyone plays a part whether it made visual sense or not. The actors were so good anyway that you concentrated more on the play itself than whether Catherine or Claire could actually be sisters. Maybe there is a backstory there somewhere that Claire was adopted from China. Enough said.
The play opens with Catherine lazily sitting on a swing at the family home in Chicago. She is surprised by his father, Robert, in the garden. They muse about stuff and share a bottle of champagne, until we realize that the conversation is actually a figment of Catherine’s musing, because Robert has just died and his funeral was going to take place tomorrow. As Robert disappears into the shadows, Hal, one of Robert’s mathematics students, arrives to check on the notebooks that Robert had left behind, hoping to find anything –theory, formula, theorems—that the old man may have jotted down. Catherine tells him its no use, his father was insane and wrote nothing but gibberish on his notebooks. Hal insists on looking at the notebooks, so, after a little to and fro-ing, she tells him to go ahead and look inside the house. Claire, Catherine’s sister who lives in New York, arrives for the funeral. They engage in some sisterly arguments, with Claire asking Catherine to move to New York where she could take care of her (i.e., have a psychiatrist look into her). She was also going to sell the house, much to Catherine’s chagrin.
Act one ends with Hal’s discovery of a notebook that contains brilliant mathematical formulas about prime numbers that Catherine claims she, not her father, wrote. However, Hal and Claire doubts this because the formulas were written in Robert’s handwriting.
The second act resolves some questions, such as: why did Catherine abandon her studies at Northwestern University to care for his father, and why where the formulas written in his father’s handwriting. It turned out, as Hal admits, that Catherine inherited her father’s genius and had a handwriting similar to his father, to whom she was very close. She also abandoned her studies because his father was losing a grip on sanity, and pleaded for her to stay. At the end of the play, Hal and Catherine are sitting on the swing, with Catherine explaining to Hal how she came up with the mathematical formulas. The scene fades to black, and what at first looked like shadows cast by trees actually turn out to be mathematical formulas illuminated white on black –a brilliant piece of stagecraft.
The actors acted in a very naturalistic way, without histriony and seemingly without effort. Justine as Catherine was brilliant at evoking a woman who was ground down by having to care for his father, but still triumphant at proving that she was a brilliant mathematician as well. She had also to shift subtly through different characterizations of Catherine, because the play jumped from the present to four years ago to an instant after the first act to three years before the present. The changes were subtle, but you could tell instantly what period of time the scene was in (ok, with a little help from the program notes). Jo as Claire had the I-love-Manhattan spiel down pat. Cameron as Scroggins, was charming as Robert’s persistent student who turns out to be Catherine’s one-night stand and possible future lover. Harris as Roberts portrayed the father with a gentle touch of sadness, as befits a genius in the winter of his life and mental facilities.
Unlike the previously play I saw here, “Golden Boy”, which was performed in the round, like in an actual boxing ring, “Proof” was played in the Stephanie P. Maclelland Theatre, a space with comfortable plush seats on raised tiers and a proscenium stage. So far I’ve been in three theaters in the Juilliard School; I wonder how many more there are!
On a side note, as I was seated in line to gain my free ticket for this play, I struck up a conversation with a sweet-looking mature lady to my left. She was reading a book in French called “Monsieur Ibrahim et les Fleurs de Quran.” Her name was Yvette. She said she and her husband came down from Michigan once every month to spend a week in New York attending free events like this.
After the play, we commented on how great the production was. As we went our respective ways on the subway, I couldn’t help but wonder: one week every month in New York? That kind of dedication speaks to just how attractive the overflowing cultural scene is of New York compared to those of other places in the USA, and indeed, the world.