Proof by David Auburn, directed by Nyalls Hartman is playing through Sunday at the Black Box Theatre in the Performing Arts and Humanities Building at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). The intimate theater is a perfect setting for this four-person show that explores both the human mind and heart.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning play was performed to great acclaim off and on Broadway, and was later adapted into a movie. This is one of those dramas that works much better in front of a live audience. The plot revolves more around relationships and self-acceptance than mathematical concepts so don’t be intimidated by the advanced mathematical subject matter.
Proof is a journey into the mind of a young woman, Catherine (Jessie Gilson), who has been caring for her mentally ill father for five years. The father, Robert (Chad Short), is also a mathematical genius and a professor at the University of Chicago. The play opens on Cathy’s 25th birthday. She is worried about her own sanity and her own path in life as she has watched her father drift in and out of psychosis while foregoing her own education to keep him out of a mental institution.
Into this story comes Hal (Clay Vanderbeek), a young professor at the university and Robert’s former student. Hal is trying to establish himself in higher mathematics through discovering some numerical secrets in his former advisor’s notebooks. He is also attracted to Catherine and trying to find his own balance between brilliance and normalcy.
When Cathy’s sister, Claire (Keri Eastridge) comes to visit from New York, the siblings must cope with their own fragile and often tumultuous relationship which reached a tipping point when Claire left her young sister and father behind and moved to New York City for a career and love.
Hartman conducts this youthful quartet of actors and pulls out some fine performances. The characters are often placed close to the audience which allows us to see even very small changes of emotions in their eyes and expressions. The pacing moves quickly even when the dialogue gets a little technical.
Jessie Gilson is cast in the central role of Catherine. The character goes through a myriad of emotions in the play and is the pivotal point of almost every scene. Gilson guides us gracefully on this trip through Catherine’s mind and heart. She depicts quick emotional changes and slowly allows the audience to be compelled by her life, her strength and her brilliance. This climaxes toward the end of the play when she has fallen into deep despair and must dig into her soul to pull herself out.
Clay Vanderbeek gives a successful portrayal of the romantic nerd Hal, as we see his own mind come to terms with his limits both in math and in personal relationships. Vanderbeek’s best scenes are the ones with Gilson where he exposes his attraction for her. Gilson and Vanderbeek have wonderful chemistry right from the start.
Keri Eastridge plays the overbearing and guilt-ridden sister. She wants to help Catherine but this is a two-edged sword. Eastridge brilliantly leaves the audience wondering whether Claire is acting out of love, guilt, selfishness or all three. Eastridge shines in the final scene with Gilson where she goes from caring sister, to guilt ridden daughter to, finally, the child who left her father and sister behind to find her own happiness.
The genius, Robert, is artfully played by Chad Short. This is a difficult role for a young actor – as not only is Robert much older that Short – but he is also a brilliant man coping with severe mental demons. Short does an excellent job as he portrays Robert as a caring father, a dependent psychotic, and a genius way past his prime.
Scenic Designer Nate Sinnot, has created a lovely older home that shows Chicago at the end of summer and symbolizes the genius’ decay both inside and out. It has warmth but can also look cold and as if it is falling into disrepair. The many windows are covered so we can sometimes hear what is happening inside, and also creates some secretiveness that tell us about our characters’ lives.
The lighting designed by Jacob Mueller creates warmth and cold by using a variety of colors in an intricate web that hangs over the stage.
The Sound Designer Composer Patrick Calhoun’s music helps set some of the moods and he wrote a humorous original song that is played in the show by a “band of geeks,” in which Hal is the drummer.
Come to the UMBC campus this weekend. Proof will prove to be a worthwhile trip.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with an intermission.