Courtesy of Sarah Valeika

A student production this weekend will tell a story of math and mental illness in the Saybrook Underbrook.

“Proof,” written in 2000 by American playwright David Auburn, will run from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2. The play tells the story of Catherine, the daughter of Robert, a recently deceased mathematical genius. Catherine cared for her father through a lengthy period of mental illness. Upon Robert’s death, his ex-graduate student Hal discovers a brilliant proof about prime numbers that Catherine claims to have written. The play’s conflict concerns whether Catherine can prove the proof’s authorship.

“I’m fascinated by the art within mathematics,” said director Sarah Valeika ’22. “I think there’s really a poetry in math, a reliance on structure and repetition and flexibility, and this play really highlights all of those things.”

“Proof” focuses on Catherine’s fear of following her father’s footsteps, both mathematically and mentally, and tracks her desperate attempts to stay in control. It explores questions of mental illness, parent-child relationships and whether one can trust what can’t be proven.

The question of academic authority is especially interesting to explore at Yale, where “the privilege to be believed” automatically comes with a degree, Valeika said. While the play does not provide a definite answer to the proof’s true authorship, it provokes the audience to consider questions of credibility. Are people wary of Catherine’s honesty because of her gender, mental health or lack of education?

“It takes a certain maturity to come to terms with ambiguity, and I think the playwright wants us to be that mature,” Valeika said.

Eva Magyar ’22, who plays Catherine’s estranged sister Claire, said that the play is a “perfect mix of tragedy and humor,” and the storyline is extremely nuanced and tightly woven.

According to Valeika, the play opens doors for audience members to reconsider tropes from our culture. For example, it interrogates the trope of the mad genius. Valeika cited the archetype of the “brilliant and tortured genius” in film and literary culture — a trope exemplified in primarily male characters.

“What is it about masculinity and genius and
instability that we find easier to buy, and why do we even need to equate these things in the first place?” Valeika said. “It’s not a play that just gives us a stereotype and lets us off the hook.”

Solia Hoegl ’20, who plays Catherine, said it is exciting to portray a strong and unapologetic woman who is “unabashed about her
quirkiness.”

“Proof” is chronologically non-linear, and incorporates many flashbacks to different stages of Catherine’s life. Hoegl said an interesting challenge has been balancing Catherine’s core personality with the emotional states accompanying different moments throughout her life.

Hoegl added that the play strives to uncover “the full person” lying under the labels that others project onto them.

“I hope that [the audience] is able to have empathy for these characters,” Hoegl said. “None of these characters are ill-intentioned. They’re all just trying to capitalize on their potential as best they can, and help the world in a way that they see fit.”

The play won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.

Carrie Zhou | pinyi.zhou@yale.edu