Review: ‘Proof’ portrays mathematicians in heartache

Amidst a backdrop of familial tension and romantic strife, the cast and crew of “Proof” tackle a novel, audacious concept: the mixing of mathematics and emotion.

The play, put on by a team of undergraduates, centers around the tumultuous relationship between a 25-year-old girl, Cathy (Marina Horiates ’15), and her mentally unstable but mathematically prodigious father (Brian Hoefling ’12). “Proof” opens with a tense conversation between the two, wherein they discuss Cathy’s recent bouts of depression over a bottle of “the world’s worst champagne.” The sullen daughter and the well-meaning father seem to slip into a comfortable, albeit slightly forced, partnership of mutual support. This dynamic quickly fades, however, when we learn that the father, Robert, is but a figment of Cathy’s grieved imagination: He died a few days ago.

“Proof” follows Cathy’s struggles to come to terms with her father’s death and confront her own identity after years of being devoted to her father’s work and well-being. A brilliant mathematician in her own right, Cathy grapples with the possibility that she may have inherited both her father’s genius and madness, all the while fending off the romantic advances of Hal (Jamie Biondi ’12), a young math professor and former graduate student of her father.

It is, above all, Cathy’s story. Her despair at her father’s death, her desire to prove herself academically, her disconnect with her sister — we are led through all of these dilemnas and meant to feel the poignancy of Cathy’s plight. But the performance falls short in establishing her as an endearing figure. For much of the first act, Cathy is too bitter, too often. The complexities of her character are introduced later, after the intermission, when we learn of Cathy’s ambitions and fight to be understood. Though Horiates does an admirable job of adding intensity to an otherwise predictable personality, more attention could be paid to highlighting Cathy’s inner struggles. We can see that her greatest fear is to follow her father’s descent into madness, and though this fear is somewhat alleviated with Hal’s help, the play’s abrupt ending leaves us wanting to see more exploration into Cathy’s psyche.

Cathy’s sister, Claire (Kate Pitt ’12), provides welcome comic relief through her misinformed advice and backhanded compliments. Her peppy, sometimes obnoxious, smile is the perfect foil to Cathy’s perpetual scowl. When she boasts about her “cute” plans for Cathy’s move to New York, we suddenly see with more clarity the horrors of Cathy’s domestic situation. After sacrificing her studies to care for her insane father, she is now forced to confront the mental diagnoses of a passive-aggressive sister and the “terrible timing” of bumbling, math-crazed Hal. The audience is led to wonder why her sanity is the one being questioned.

While the transitions between the flashbacks could be smoother, they serve nicely as windows into Cathy’s past life with her father. In one wintery scene set on the porch of their Chicago home, Robert’s state is devastating. The scene is directed such that the audience, like Cathy, thinks that Robert is on the verge of a brilliant, mathematical discovery, that we were wrong all along about his mental condition. We continue along this stream of thought until Cathy picks up her father’s notebook and reads his thoughts aloud: “I am very cold,” he writes. What he claimed to be revolutionary ideas turn out to be simple thoughts, depressed and bleak. These micro-moments, where we are taken along Cathy’s emotional journey, save the play from its predictable plotline. It is obvious, after all, that love will bloom between the mourning daughter and her father’s grad student. It is clear from the get-go that there is crucial information hidden within the notebooks of Robert’s office. Luckily, the story’s various twists and turns keep us curious about how these ends will ultimately be reached.

“Proof” is aptly named for its many odes to math. The interweaving of math jokes with moments of emotional tension is sometimes inappropriate and almost always awkward, but works to underlie the crises facing three of the central characters: How can those inured to the cold rationality of numbers prove their emotional depth? Though not quite the touching portrait of family and love that it could be, “Proof” is an enjoyable performance for anyone interested in a little drama tempered by academia. As Robert says to his daughter in the play, “even your depression is mathematical!”