The East West Players overcomes the shortcomings of David Auburn’s sojourn through the cathartic coming of age of a brilliant but emotionally wounded young mathematician by investing each scene with palpable vitality and humor. This is particularly true of Kimiko Gelman’s portrayal of the main protagonist, Catherine. Despite its Tony and Pulitzer pedigree, “Proof” is pedestrian in its plot evolution and unconvincing in its resolution. But under the measured pacing of helmer Heidi Helen Davis, a more than capable four-member ensemble supplies an impressively literate outing.
Auburn juxtaposes the essential strength of mathematics, which lies in its ability to prove that something is absolutely true, against the inherent weakness of life, where truth is more than likely to be an agreed-upon series of compromises.
Set against the exterior of the home of once-brilliant mathematician Robert (Dom Magwili), who has descended into a kind of benign madness, the action follows his troubled 25-year-old daughter, Catherine, a promising mathematician who has put the last four years of her life on hold to care for him. In the aftermath of his death, she finds herself totally unprepared to handle the responsibility of living her life.
Alternating scenes from the present to the past, Auburn utilizes Catherine’s plight to underscore the inconsistencies and uncertainties in dealing with genius, madness, heredity, filial devotion, personal doubt and the maze of ambivalent and contradictory attractions, empathies and motivations that draw us into and out of each other’s lives.
The playwright places too much responsibility for carrying this heavy thematic throughline in the shaky resolve of Catherine. Fortunately, Gelman’s captivating, laserlike intensity, underscored with a zesty humor, makes it all work.
Hovering around the troubled young woman are two people with agendas of their own. Hal (David J. Lee), a former student of Robert, is determined to go through his mentor’s notebooks to find any valuable fragments that the great mind might have produced despite his insanity. Along the way, he realizes that he wants Robert’s daughter as well. Meanwhile, Catherine’s older, successful businesswoman sister, Claire (Joanne Takahashi), has flown in to settle her father’s affairs and take Catherine under her protective wing, whether Catherine wants it or not.
Lee strikes an impressive balance between bookish geek and attractive romancer. He is contrasted by Takahashi’s equally effective and hard-edged portrayal of an older sister who has lived with the knowledge that Catherine was the gifted one and clearly her father’s favorite.
Complementing everyone is the quirky, thoroughly original portrayal of Robert by Magwili. It is easy to believe this mischievous character was at one time the rage and the scourge of the U. of Chicago math department.
The entire production is elevated by the perfectly wrought rundown Victorian home setting by Victoria Petrovich, supported by the evocative lighting of Jose Lopez and sound of Bob Bresnik.