No gift comes without a cost. And that lesson courses through every moment of Proof, David Auburn’s very fine Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which is being given a thrilling revival at Everyman Theatre.
Set on the back porch of a house in Chicago, Auburn’s elegant play (directed at Everyman by Paige Hernandez) weaves between the past and present, memory and the here and now to paint a portrait of two exceptional people, Robert (Bruce Randolph Nelson), a brilliant, but profoundly mentally ill mathematician, and his equally brilliant, and possibly mentally ill daughter, Catherine (Katie Kleiger). As the play opens, Catherine is sharing a bottle of champagne with her father in celebration of her 25th birthday. Or is she? Is this a tender moment between a dutiful daughter and an aging parent, or is it the early signs of a young mind beginning to fracture?
When Robert dies and Hal (Jeremy Keith Hunter), one of his former students, comes to go through the work he did at the end of his life, Catherine’s fragile world is upended when she is forced to reveal who she really is, for the very first time. As Hal and Catherine forge a hesitant friendship, Catherine’s older sister Claire (Megan Anderson) swoops in from New York intent on “fixing” Catherine and putting a pat ending on a familial crisis she purposely avoided.
Part mystery, part love story, part family drama, Proof is ultimately about the juxtaposition of chaos and order, in mathematical theorems, in the world, and even in life itself. As Catherine, Katie Kleiger embodies a young woman teetering somewhere on the edge of sanity. Petulant and pensive, enraged and eager, Kleiger’s Catherine is unmoored, struggling to free herself from a world that will not and cannot understand her.
She is matched in intensity by Bruce Randolph Nelson as her father, Robert, a man who is the physical manifestation of the thing Catherine hates most about herself. Rumpled, unshaven, dressed in flannel shirt and corduroys, of the type favored by academics who have long given up caring, Nelson’s Robert is infuriating and pitiful. A scene early in the second act when his scrambled mind has practically consumed him is especially devastating.
As Hal, Hunter is the kind of chipper, innocuous go-getter, who tries to hide an almost voracious need to publish, to discover…something. Anything. To matter. To leave his mark. His rapport with Kleiger is natural and familiar, even as he almost certainly knows that his mind will never fully comprehend what to Catherine is innate.
Anderson, who played the role of Catherine when Everyman first produced Proof in 2003, returns as Claire, a currency analyst and Catherine’s older sister. Claire, who seems to make it a habit to avoid anything the least bit difficult or ugly, and who has been conspicuously absent in the intervening years, breezes in to tidy up loose ends, to save Catherine from herself, and to host a rager the night of her father’s funeral. The interplay between Kleiger, whose resentment simmers just under the surface, and Anderson is as uncomfortable as you would expect. Never has an exchange between two women about hair conditioner been less about hair conditioner than when Claire tries to explain the benefits of jojoba to Catherine.
Daniel Ettinger’s set, a frame of a house with walls made of scrim, so that you can see inside and outside simultaneously, provides a nice surface for Martha Mountain’s evocative lighting. The costumes by David Burdick have an authenticity that suggests these people actually own and have lived in these clothes.
So, what of these gifts I mentioned in the beginning? What is their cost? For Catherine and Robert, it is accepting that genius is almost always tempered by madness. And for Hal and Claire, it is that when reaping the benefit of a brilliant mind, you come to realize just how ordinary you actually are.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Sound Design, Sarah O’Halloran; Scenic Charge, Amy Kellett; Fights/Intimacy, Lewis Shaw