David Auburn’s play “Proof” directed by Martha Jacobs at the IU Theatre is a clever vehicle for a quartet of the department’s finest actors. Scot Purkeypile makes a thoroughly sympathetic and warm yet curmudgeonly figure as Robert, a once brilliant, now demented University of Chicago math professor. Allison Batty is by turns angry, aggressive, joyous and intensely vulnerable as Robert’s youngest daughter, Catherine. Catherine may have inherited some of Robert’s genius and fears that she may have also inherited his mental illness. Carmen Rae Meyers, was both sympathetic and unbearable as Robert’s stuffily competent older daughter, Claire. Sam Wooten was thoroughly charming as one of Robert’s former students, a handsomely boyish, slightly geeky, math grad and young professor.
The first scene of “Proof” it is late at night or early in the morning. Robert and Catherine are celebrating her birthday on the back porch of their Chicago home. Robert is charmingly clumsy about it and they joke that he’s bought her the worst champagne imaginable. It’s a bit of surprise when Robert ends his fatherly conversation by ruefully reminding Catherine that he’s dead.
The evening becomes a bit more real. Hal comes down to the porch. He’s been upstairs in Robert’s study hoping to find some mathematical treasures in the pages and pages of nonsense that the deranged Robert has written. Catherine has been taking care of her father for years and she is possessively suspicious, angry and paranoid about Hal’s research. He tries to be placating, but things escalate, she calls 911 and as the lights go down there is the sound of a police siren.
The next scene is of the morning, older sister Claire has arrived for the funeral and she is preparing a breakfast for Catherine on the porch. Claire is a perfect picture of an instantly dislikeable, fussily compulsive older sister. She’s trying to be nice. Claire is fixing breakfast and has even managed to square things with the police, but the basic dynamic between Claire and Catherine is of a pair of angry cats hissing at one another. Now I know that sisters, and for that matter brothers, may seem to have come from separate planets and can thoroughly dislike one another, but I’d have liked some more sisterly sense.
A lot more happens in the scenes following the off-stage funeral. Hal and Catherine spar and fall in love. Claire is humanized by a nasty hangover. In the first act’s final scene, Catherine directs Hal to find a potentially marvelous proof in Robert’s papers. To both Hal and Claire’s amazement, Catherine claims to have written. Hal can’t believe it and Claire won’t believe it.
It seemed as if things are pretty well ready to end. As act two of “Proof” began it almost felt like that final ten minutes of an-hour long TV show. You know that things are going to be all sorted out. However, playwright David Auburn stretches things. He fools around a bit with something like post-fore-shadowing, by beginning the second act with a scene from years before act one began. Robert is in remission from his mania. Catherine is planning to leave caring for him to resume college. And we learn that she in fact was a gifted mathematician. Hal arrives with the rough draft of his dissertation. From the first act we know that Hal is supposed to have been smitten by Catherine and she attracted to him, but I just didn’t quite see it here and wished that I had.
From there on, “Proof” is back to sequential action. Claire has arranged to sell the house out from under Catherine, but Catherine balks at going with her back to New York. Like the cavalry in a western, Hal joyously arrives convinced that the mathematical proof is Catherine’s. The lights go down as the two of them are working over some of its rough spots.
The IU Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s recent Pulitzer prize winning play “Proof” is an involving, interesting and very nicely presented piece. The back porch set by Gordan Strain was meticulously realized. Carmen Killiam’s costume designs from frumpy bathrobes to elegant evening ware were tasteful and looked just right. Martha Jacobs direction showed a deep understanding of Auburn’s feel for character development in narrative.
The IU Theatre’s production of David Auburn’s “Proof” plays each evening this week at eight and Saturday at two and eight in the Wells-Metz Theatre.