Mind games

RWU’s intriguing Proof
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  July 16, 2008
davidauburnINSIDE.jpg
PLAYING THE NUMBERS: Auburn.

Higher mathematics — the science of numbers and predicting their patterns — is the perfect context for David Auburn’s Proof, a play about the ultimately immeasurable: what can be truly known about loved ones. The troupe at Roger Williams University’s Barn Summer Playhouse is taking on the delicate drama with satisfying finesse (through July 19).

It’s a mystery, of sorts, that unfolds with requisite misdirection and reversals, but the only death is that of a brilliant mind. The story is compelling enough for the Off-Broadway 2000 production to have gone on to Broadway later that year and become an even bigger hit.

Robert (Norm Zinger) had a mind so brilliant that by age 25 his insights revolutionized three areas of mathematics. Unfortunately, that intellect disintegrated into madness, with only one lucid stretch in the last years of his life. For those years, his daughter Catherine (Katie Hughes), now 28, put her own life and even college education on hold while she took care of him in Chicago. As an opening champagne-supplemented conversation with him indicates, as well as inheriting his intelligence, she may also have inherited his schizophrenia — since he is dead and can’t really be there.

Of course, she could be talking to him inside her head, the way any of us might, so her potential madness remains a source of suspense. The uncertainty extends most significantly to when an astounding mathematical proof is discovered in one of his notebooks, a supposedly insolvable matter about prime numbers. The handwriting is similar to her father’s, but she insists it is hers. Could she have deluded herself into thinking that she too is a mathematical genius?

The day before the funeral, a graduate student and protégé of Robert’s, Hal Dobbs (Brad Connors), is at the house to pore over the 103 notebooks that the professor had filled with rambling jottings in his illness, to determine if there is anything of value. He gets off on the wrong foot when, after insisting that Catherine is being paranoid by suggesting that he might have pilfered something, we see that he has taken one of the notebooks. The first nice little reversal in the play is that this lie was an act of kindness rather than theft.

Catherine’s older sister Claire (Mary Beth Luzitano), who has flown in from New York, is a currency analyst, her facility with numbers hardly on the level of her father’s. Since she has paid the mortgage and expenses on the house during their father’s illness, she has decided to sell the place, which is too large and expensive to keep up for one person. She wants Catherine to move in with her and her husband, saying that it’s her time to be taken care of. To Catherine, whose own emotional instability has been demonstrated, that sounds a lot like she’s about to be thrown into a mental institution, as Claire had always suggested for their father.

Trust? That’s the question that needs an answer before either sister can be sure whether the other is telling the truth. Catherine also needs to know whether she can believe Hal, that his romantic interest in her is not merely self-serving, a way to ensure access to Robert’s papers. She’s even concerned that he might want to pass the proof off as his own, since neither the old geeks nor the new geeks at the University of Chicago can find anything wrong with it.

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