by David Auburn
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Starring Chelsea Altman and Robert Foxworth
Seattle Repertory Theatre

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

Given that David Auburn's play "Proof" has won just about every conceivable prize short of the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes, perhaps the most surprising thing about it is how small and intimate a drama it is. It's the story of a famous mathematician whose brilliance runs side by side with mental illness, and how his death has left his daughter Catherine with a legacy of both talent and doubt. Beyond that, it takes us inside the relationships between sisters, between fathers and daughters, between students and mentors, and between genius and madness. Its locale is a too-long inhabited family home, and the measurable universe of perception, ambition, imagination and desire.

Director Daniel Sullivan, former artistic director of the Seattle Rep, won the 2001 Tony for his direction of this play, which also won for Best Play. This production is being mounted preparatory to a national tour. Clearly, he knows and understands this material. There is a masterful sense of control over the pace and proportion of the evening, and a theatrical intelligence which understands how much of what is happening, how much of what we as an audience are expected to understand, is beyond the simple actions on stage. This is a play about very smart people, for smart people, but with a deeply sympathetic understanding of how limited intelligence is for understanding the most profound problems of living, and how nebulous the proof of those solutions can be.

As Catherine, Chelsea Altman has a curious and oddly stylized role. In the early parts of the play, her line delivery is as flat and uninflected as the announcements in a bus terminal. She rushes every line, almost tripping over each cue line, hurrying to complete every word without shaping any of them. At first it seemed artificial, ridiculous, weirdly contrived. What emerges, however, is that the delivery is, in fact, out of synch with the rest of the world, tripping over itself, uncertain of its emphasis and distrustful of meaning, and not entirely connected with the speaker. In short, it is everything that Catherine is about. As the play unfolds, we also realize that it has become that way only after her father's passing, that it can be natural in conflict with her sister, or when she is relatively intimate with a man. Catherine is essentially different from everyone else in the play, except for her father, and that similarity has become her deepest fear. Ms. Altman has an amazing range, great vulnerability melded with personal strength, and the sort of ordinary exterior, like her father, that makes it easy to be blind to the extraordinary depth and complexity of her mind.

Robert Foxworth gives the once-brilliant, long-ill mathematician an exceptional humanity, both frighteningly gifted and profoundly fragile. Above all, he draws a portrait of a self-contained universe that is at once astonishingly full and rich and fearfully empty. In his scenes with Catherine, we see not a brilliant intellectual star, but the yellow sun of an ordinary father. And like all ordinary fathers, he wants too much for her, expects too much from her, gives and withholds in unfair and unpredictable proportions, loves her and hurts her. Ultimately, it is both his generosity and his selfishness which mark her, and the costs of his life are paid by both of them.

More stable, less brilliant and less tortured is the sister Claire, played by Tasha Lawrence. Because Catherine was the one to stay with her father and care for him in the worst of his illness, Claire feels some guilt, as well as a desire to better understand what that illness has meant, what it cost her father and her sister. The relationship between the two sisters couldn't be more convincing, filled with all of the rivalry, concern, resentment, closeness and separation of real siblings. Claire knows she hasn't inherited the gifts or demons her sister has, but she also knows that she has a stability and tranquility that Catherine will never know. What I like best about Tasha Lawrence is the maturity and restraint she brings to the role, never pandering for our sympathy or underlining subtleties meant to be revealed only to the truly attentive. More than anyone else, she is the grownup in the play, and she makes that seem like both a destination and a reward.

Finally, Stephen Kunken plays the bright Ph.D. student, Hal. His quest to uncover any hidden gems in Robert's notebooks initiates the play's action, and it's his dogged pursuit, as well as his conviction that this is vital to the world, that gives the play urgency. It also underlines the theme of ambition and fame as a fearsome potion, to be sipped at great peril. Stephen Kunken has just the right blend of appeal, awkwardness, intelligence and normalcy to make the role work. He's admirable at the same time that he's slightly tainted, and you want him to succeed at the same time you fear for his success.

The physical production is as accomplished as the on-stage action. John Lee Beatty has designed the brick walled, back-porch set, with its peeling paint and tired light that makes the inside of the house, which we never see, feel like the sort of place that hasn't been aired out in far too long. The original music, by John Gromada, is elegant and restrained, and lends a sense of mystery, dignity and civility. The costumes, by Jess Goldstein, are fine except for Catherine, whose plunging necklines are distracting and don't add to the play. Pat Collins lighting is always appropriate and effective.

"Proof" is at once a detective story, a domestic drama and a thriller. It's filled with remarkable surprises, sudden turns, unpredictable behaviors and astonishing revelations. Above all, though, it's filled with recognizable human beings testing their own formulas for making sense of existence. In the end, everything in the equation is dependent upon one or another of its human components, and the balances and factors are as familiar as they are esoteric. This is a stunningly intelligent play, beautifully staged, smartly acted and brilliantly directed. It leaves the audience staring into a night sky in which infinity mixes with dreams and nightmares, and we hold one another's chilly hands as we gaze up in wonder.

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