David Auburn’s “Proof” may be set in the cosmic, abstract world of theoretical mathematics, but it’s essentially a family drama, so in order for it to succeed, it needs to be rooted firmly in daily life. The characters have to be fully human, the staging down-to-earth and believable. By these standards, the Seattle Repertory Theater’s new production succeeds mightily. It tells a plain but moving story about a young woman, her estranged older sister, their brilliant but troubled father and their father’s protege.
Daniel Sullivan, who won a Tony for staging “Proof” on Broadway, directs again here. And Stephen Kunken again plays the student Hal, after understudying and performing the role in New York. The others are new to the cast. All will travel with the production to San Francisco’s Curran Theater, the first stop on a nationwide tour.
Chelsea Altman can be credited with giving the play a strong center. She plays Catherine, a college-age woman still living in her dilapidated family home in Chicago (designed with convincing detail by John Lee Beatty).
Catherine has sacrificed her ambitions to care for her father, Robert (Robert Foxworth), an accomplished mathematician plagued by mental illness. But she’s no saint. Her many virtues — among them intelligence and compassion — are clouded by resentment, anger and distrust. Sarcasm is her prime means of communication.
Mary-Louise Parker and Jennifer Jason Leigh have played this role on Broadway. Altman portrays the character as a conflicted woman with a mixture of youthful immaturity and world-weary fatigue. She has a deadpan delivery that echoes every sullen teenager who ever despised a parent or sibling. She also has crack comic timing well-suited to the rhythms of Auburn’s pen. (His early stage experiences included a stint as a sketch-comedy writer in Chicago.)
Altman’s cast mates have similarly good instincts. A scene in which Hal steals a kiss from Catherine is timed perfectly, milking the moment for maximum awkwardness and poignancy.
As played by Tasha Lawrence, Catherine’s older sister Claire, who swoops into town to “arrange” Catherine’s life, is bossy, insensitive, judgmental … and vulnerable. Foxworth’s Robert is loving, wise … and needy. In other words, every character in the play is fully fleshed out. They seem like people who really know each other, and whom we come to know a bit, too.
The play has its own snappy rhythm that the actors seem happy to fall into. Some of this no doubt is due to director Sullivan, who knows well how to keep a play from sagging. But it’s also just there, in the script. It’s hard to recall a play written recently that has more forward narrative drive: Things happen onstage; people don’t just stand around talking. A handful of moments in the first act are literally breathtaking.
Naturally, like the mathematical proof on which the plot turns, “Proof” has its flaws, its gaps. It certainly has its share of awkward passages. When Hal describes to Catherine her father’s many contributions to the field of mathematics — surely she already knows this? — the dialogue practically screams “Exposition!” And the final two minutes move too fast, the resolution occurring so quickly it strains credibility.
“Proof” also seems to promise, occasionally, something more than it delivers — something (like a mathematical theory) more profound, more consequential than a simple story of a troubled family. But as stories go, it’s an absorbing and well-told one. And as productions go, this one should have a very happy ending.