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PlayMakers Repertory Company Preview: Proof Explores the Fine Line Between Genius and Madness in the World of Mathematics

November 21, 2002 - Chapel Hill. NC:


Proof, a bracing comedy of ideas by award-winning American playwright David Auburn, will make its Triangle debut Nov. 27 in a stellar PlayMakers Repertory Company production directed by PRC resident director Ted Shaffner. Proof uses the dynamics of a dysfunctional family headed by an internationally renowned but emotionally unstable mathematician to explore the fine line between genius and madness in the world of mathematics.

"There is growing evidence," Shaffner says, "that what underlies the illness of schizophrenia may perhaps be a clearer vision of what actually lies beneath the human condition. The same words are used by schizophrenics that are used by many of our greatest artists, scientists, and mystics, as well as anyone who has had a near-death experience.

"Confronting (or not confronting) this void is the primary activity of life," Shaffner clams, "and how this plays out becomes both the story of our lives and the mark of our personalities. Geniuses and madmen tend to go it alone — that's what makes them geniuses and madmen."

Shaffner adds, "Most of the rest of us, however, stand apathetically at the crossroads until some crisis forces us to the point of confrontation. Proof is a play about this crossroads, and where possible salvation from the paralysis may lie."

Proof, which debuted on Broadway just two years ago, won a whole shelf load of awards for dramatist David Auburn. They include the 2001 Tony® Award for Best Play and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The play begins, Ted Shaffner says, as "Catherine (guest artist Christina Ross) reaches her 25th birthday. She finds herself coping with the death of her father, Robert (PRC company member Philip Davidson), a brilliant mathematician who was also mentally ill. Robert's old student, Hal (guest artist and Tectonic Theater Project member Andy Paris) finds a mathematical proof in the attic, and the plot revolves around what this discovery might mean for Catherine, Hal, and Catherine's sister Claire (guest artist Connan Morrissey)."

Staging Proof for PlayMakers Repertory Company presents substantial challenges for director Ted Shaffner, who directed crowd-pleasing PRC productions of 'Art' and An O. Henry Christmas, and to his creative team, which includes set designer Michael Heil, lighting designer Peter West, costume designer Marion Williams, and sound designer and composer M. Anthony Reimer.

"It's a play of deep psychology with very complicated people," says Shaffner. "That is both the challenge and the joy."

He adds, "The play takes place in the back yard of a house in Chicago. The house appears onstage, as well as a picnic table and lawn furniture. The set was designed to be both 'worn and warm.'… The lighting will be largely naturalistic, outdoor lighting.… The costumes are contemporary and naturalistic."

When reviewing the Broadway production of Proof, Daniel Rockmore, of The Chronicle of Higher Education, called the play a "wonderful drama that elegantly describes the world of mathematics, and suggests how ill-suited the mathematical notion of truth is for life. It's impossible to divine the future, and it's no easier to derive it. We're only as certain as our next best guess."

New York Post theater critic Clive Barnes wrote: "[Proof] is beautifully and closely plotted. OK, the story itself is not much more than a highbrow soap opera with painless references to mathematics. Yet Auburn, in his first Broadway outing, provides characters behaving credibly and natural dialogue without a single stagy phrase stumbling the flow and also ensures the tension is handsomely sustained."

Bruce Weber of The New York Times added: "Without any baffling erudition — if you know what a prime number is, there won't be a single line of dialogue you find perplexing — the play presents mathematicians as both blessed and bedeviled by the gift for abstraction that ties them achingly to one another and separates them, also achingly, from concrete-minded folks like you and me. And perhaps most satisfying of all, it does so without a moment of meanness."

USA Today critic Elysa Gardner noted: "What's perhaps most striking about Auburn's writing, though, is his sense of structure, which is at once imaginative and stringently coherent. Veering gracefully from past to present and from reflection to confrontation, the playwright traces the development of his characters and plot with a scientist's preciseness and a poet's lyricism."

Even New York magazine's resident curmudgeon, theater critic John Simon, loved Proof: "David Auburn's Proof is what Copenhagen ought to be: a play about scientists whose science matters less than their humanity," Simon wrote. "Here, those of us who want their dramatic characters to be real people need not feel excluded. Robert, a world-famous mathematician who went crazy; Catherine, his mathematically brilliant but too-depressed-to-work daughter; Hal, a young math teacher going through Robert's hundred-plus confused notebooks; and Claire, Robert's older daughter and a successful actuary, are above all fascinating individuals. Robert isn't any less human even for being, through most of the play, dead. All four — whether loving, hating, encouraging or impeding one another — are intensely alive, complex, funny, human."

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Proof Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 27-30, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 1, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Dec. 3-7, 10-14, and 17-21, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 8, 15, and 22, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at UNC-Chapel Hill. $9-$34. 919/962-PLAY (7529). http://www.playmakersrep.org/.