Reviewed by Judy Richter
That's one of the questions at the crux of "Proof," David Auburn's award-winning play presented by TheatreWorks.
It's not entirely out of the question that Catherine (Michelle Beck) could have accomplished such a feat because she is the daughter of Robert (L. Peter Callender), an eminent math professor at the University of Chicago.
As the play opens on an early September day, the two of them are chatting in their homey backyard (designed by Annie Smart with lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Gregory Robinson), and he wishes her a happy 25th birthday. It all seems normal enough, but this is an imaginary conversation. He died of heart failure a week ago, and his funeral is the next day.
Another question in the play is whether the depressed Catherine may have inherited Robert's debilitating mental illness, which had caused her to drop out of Northwestern University to look after him.
Catherine's older sister, Claire (Ashley Bryant), who has returned home for the funeral, wonders the same thing and wants her to join her in New York City, where she is a currency analyst. Apparently she's quite successful, judging by her stylish appearance (costumes by Noah Marin) and the fact that she paid the bills when Robert couldn't work.
Perhaps the largest doubt about Catherine's ability to develop the proof comes from Hal (Lance Gardner), who was Robert's doctoral protege and who now teaches at Chicago. He has been going through dozens of Robert's notebooks to see if they contain anything beyond gibberish.
The action shifts between the current time and four years ago, when Robert seemed like his old self while in remission.
Director Leslie Martinson artfully guides these four outstanding actors. Beck has the biggest challenge because Catherine is plagued by her fears and annoyed at her sister's take-charge approach while dealing with her attraction to Hal. Beck's keen timing allows Catherine to process information before responding.
Although Claire can come across as controlling, Bryant shows that she truly cares about Catherine and worries about her mental stability.
Callender's Robert has multiple facets as a caring father and brilliant mathematician in his lucid moments and manic as his illness returns.
Gardner's Hal takes pride in his geekiness, but he can be both endearing and cautious in his dealings with Catherine.
Auburn's 2000 play won both the Tony Award for best play and Pulitzer Prize for drama. Since opening on Broadway, it has been widely produced. TheatreWorks staged it in 2003, and Foster City's Hillbarn Theatre presented it in March.
Although both were excellent, especially the one by TheatreWorks, this one is even more effective, and not just because of the actors. Adding to the seemingly inherent prejudice against women in the sciences, director Martinson inserts another variable by using an all-black cast.
Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, "Proof" is a multi-dimensional, gripping play that resonates especially well in Silicon Valley.
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