"Proof" loses some of its elegance at Oldcastle Theatre Company

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BENNINGTON, Vt. — Catherine, the pivotal character in David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize play, "Proof," is 25 years old and a wreck.

When first we see her in Oldcastle Theatre Company's fitful, often staccatolike production, she is sitting hunched up, cross-legged, on a chair on the back porch of the decaying Chicago house she has shared with her ailing father, Robert, in the years following her mother's death. Everything about her suggests retreat.

It not only is the day of her 25th birthday, it is the eve of her father's funeral. Her estranged older sister, Claire, is ion her way in from New York, where she has built a successful career as a currency analyst and is soon to marry her longtime live-in boyfriend.

"I'm tired," Catherine (a riveting Talley Gale) says on more than on occasion. It's an understatement. She is spent; absolutely spent. She's devoted the last five years caring for her father, Robert, a math genius in the math department at the University of Chicago before bending and finally breaking under the weight of dementia.

And while Catherine is deeply concerned that she, too, might be headed for mental decline, she has given permission to a 28-year-old former student of her father, a math geek named Hal (a frequently appealing and ingenuous Ethan Botwick), to go through her father's notebooks of the five years before his death in the hope of finding something of value.

Robert (an initially unsteady Richard Howe) was no ordinary math genius. For one thing, his proofs had an elegance that made them so distinctive. Moreover, "when your dad was younger than both of us," Hal tells Catherine with a blend of awe and envy, "he made major contributions to three fields: game theory, algebraic geometry, and nonlinear operator theory. Most of us never get our heads around one. He basically invented the mathematical techniques for studying rational behavior, which economists have been milking for Nobels ever since ... "

That Catherine — whose own mathematics education and modest ambitions have been sidelined by her father's condition — may well have inherited that set of genes rises as an issue when she shares with Hal something she's neither talked about with or shown to anyone else, not even her father: a notebook she has kept locked away in a drawer in her father's desk — a proof of "a mathematical theorem about prime numbers," Hal explains to Claire, "something mathematicians have been trying to prove since ... there were mathematicians, basically." If this is, in fact, her father's work, it would mean he was doing "some of the most important mathematics in the world," Hal realizes, "at a time when everyone thought he was crazy or barely functioning." Catherine insists that this is work she has done on her own, late at night while her father was sleeping. Hal, and Claire, have doubts, serious doubts about Catherine's assertions.

The question of authorship of the proof may frame the later portions of Auburn's elegantly written, beautifully nuanced play but the play's heart throbs with issues around relationships, particularly within a family; the debts and responsibilities due one another as siblings, as parents, as children — questions of trust, duty, responsibility, love; self-worth.

Nowhere do these issues roil more than in the complex relationship between Catherine and Claire (a somewhat superficial Calley Cianfarini), whose decision to leave Robert's care in Catherine's hands while she went off to make her own life in New York has left a lot of unfinished business between them. Now Claire has come back — for the funeral, ostensibly. But she is a woman on a mission — to sell the house and to bring Catherine to New York.

The fissure between them is deep. Catherine sees her life over the past five years as one of grinding sacrifice born of love while Claire was nowhere present. But Claire's sacrifices were no less. "I was working fourteen hour days," she replies sharply. "I paid every bill here. I paid off the mortgage on this three bedroom house while I was living in a studio in Brooklyn." She has paid the bills since and, at one point, worked out with Catherine a plan for her to enroll at Northwestern University at a time when it appeared that their father had fully recovered. Claire also has questioned the wisdom of Catherine's determination to be their father's at-home caregiver rather than place him in a medical facility.

There also is just a hint of sibling rivalry. "I probably inherited about one one thousandth of my father's ability. It's enough. Catherine got more. I'm not sure how much," Cianfarini's Claire tells Botwick's Hal lightly; with acknowledgment of a truth, tempered by just the faintest hint of envy and regret.

While Gale's Catherine responds to Claire with wariness, sarcasm, anger, resignation, there is little in Cianfarini's Claire that is more than skin deep and it deprives Auburn's play of an underlying dramatic tension.

The relationship between Gale's Catherine and Botwick's earnest Hal also is unevenly played. Their love scene is an uneasy blend of, on the one hand, two engagingly awkward young people at a sudden, unexpected opportune moment and, on the other, perfunctory actions by two actors. The chemistry between them is more imagined than present. On the whole, however, Botwick's Ethan is an appealing young man who understands his limits without granting himself credit for being worth just a bit more than the boundaries with which he defines himself.

As Robert, Howe is uncharacteristically uncertain and fumbling in his opening scene. He is on firmer ground in the second half but, like director Eric Peterson's production on the whole, there is a sense of skimming over the riches of Auburn's play and just getting through as quickly as possible.

The net effect is to leave Gale's beautifully calibrated Catherine on her own. Gale's is a portrait painted with delicate strokes and shading. Her palette holds the colors of innocence, confidence, self-denigration, self-protection, compassion, self-justification, sharp wit, genius; a young woman whose life at this point feels like one missed opportunity after another — kind of like this inelegant production.

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at jborak@berkshureeagle.com or 413-496-6212


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