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a Drama
by David Auburn

COMPANY : Onstage Atlanta, Inc. [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Onstage Atlanta, Inc. (Decatur) [WEBSITE]
ID# 3838

SHOWING : October 22, 2010 - November 06, 2010



"Crazy people don’t sit around wondering if they’re nuts."

Robert was a mathematical genius and a professor. His daughter Catherine cared for him through a lengthy mental illness. Upon his death, his ex-graduate student Hal discovers a paradigm-shifting proof about prime numbers in Robert's office. Hal and Catherine’s sister Claire question the authenticity of the proof, while Catherine explores her fear of continuing her father's legacy, both mathematically and mentally.

Director Michael Henry Harris
Lighting Design Harley Gould
Costume Design Paige McRae
Sound Design Charlie Miller
Set Design Barry N. West
Catherine Barbara Cole Uterhardt
Robert Tom Gillespie
Claire Jennifer Lee
Hal Topher Payne
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production


Connecting the Dots
by Mama Alma
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
In January 1913, G.H. Hardy, a Cambridge academic, received a letter from a young Indian clerk, who, although he was largely unschooled, not having started math until he was 10, included several mathematical theorems he had worked out for himself. Hardy originally dismissed the letter as a hoax, but he found the letter nagging at his consciousness. Some of the theorems were already known, but others were new and radical, some even beyond Hardy's understanding. Eventually Hardy brought Srinivasa Ramanujan to Cambridge and they collaborated for years until the latter's untimely death at the age of 32. Hardy used to say that his greatest contribution to mathematics was that he discovered Ramanujan. Google "Hardy-Ramanujan number" before you see "Proof" and listen for it to pop up.

The reason I got to thinking about Ramanujan after watching "Proof" wasn't because of the Hardy-Ramanujan number (although I'll admit that was an added bonus when I realized the tie-in.) It was the idea that Ramanujan, like Catherine in this play, had a problem with perception. Ramanujan was dismissed by Cambridge mathematicians before Hardy discovered him because he was unschooled. Clearly he could not be capable of advanced mathematics. It would be as if a patent clerk could unlock the workings of the universe. (See, for example, Einstein's theory on relativity.) It would be as if the janitor walked in and solved an advanced math problem that no one else in the class was able to tackle. (See, for instance, Good Will Hunting.)

This is the attitude Catherine encounters in Proof. She's largely unschooled in higher math, having spent her college years taking care of her ailing father, and she's female, math being mostly a male game. The mathematical proof that is the subject of the play, then, is initially taken for her father's work, even though he was mentally ill years before his death. During a very brief episode of lunacy for him, Catherine had returned to school, but in her absence her father's illness reasserted itself, and she reluctantly returned to care for him. It was in this time of sacrifice and frustration that she began her own work, her own proof.

Look up the word Proof, and it's not only evidence, not only a mathematical construct, but it also means "validation" and it also means an impression struck to look for errors, like the proof of an engraving, or the galley proof for a (paper) book, or a photographic proof. I'm always intrigued by texture and layers and there are many forms that proof takes in Auburn's play. There's the work Catherine has performed, then the validation of the work as correct, then the attribution of the work as hers and not her father's (which involves a courtroom-like cross examination of Catherine by her sister Claire because there is no "evidence/proof" that Catherine performed this work except her word). Then there's the "striking off of errors" as the play focuses in on what really matters, the validation of Catherine, to herself, and to the young man she's opened up to, and the proving, finally, of their relationship to each other. Sidelines include the muzziness of alcohol (defined by its proof, double its alcohol content – I've never understood that) and the catty competitiveness of the sisters as to who was the better daughter – the one who stayed and enabled (perhaps in a good way?), or the one who supported with money and clear-headedness (I always prick up my ears when an author names a character Claire).

The cast at Onstage is amazing. Jennifer Lee is wonderfully brittle and hard nosed as the emotionally cold Claire, as she efficiently, remorselessly tries to tie up the loose ends left by the messy death of her father. (This is a thankless role – everyone always hates Claire.) Tom Gillespie has a wry delivery as the father, Robert, and this earned some laughs at odd places, but then that's how life often is: we laugh at the saddest places so we don't fall apart. Robert is somewhat detached, caught up in his work and later his madness. In this emotional vacuum, then, Catherine (Barbara Uterhardt, alternately prickly and luminous as the role demands) is trying to survive without losing her own sanity, and she's afraid, due to proximity and genetics, that's she's losing her battle with the murky enemy, lunacy. In the latter half of the play, Uterhardt imbues Catherine's attempts to "prove" her authorship with a kind of surrealistic irony. She's not so much shocked at the betrayal of those who won't believe her as disbelieving that this can be happening to her at all. It's more than merely the proof of the proof that's at stake. It's a validation of who she has struggled to become, and she feels the sands of her very identity shifting beneath her feet.

Michael Henry Harris' choice to present the piece on the smaller stage puts us in the midst of this familial dysfunction. Auburn cleverly plays with time and perception in his play, turning and twisting what we think we know and understand. (This is wonderfully aided by Barry West's set – a living room of sorts that is "outside" with planks that look like a porch, but also suggest a roof. Chairs are perched right at the end of the stage, suggesting everything could fall apart at any moment.) Catherine is a slob, staying up and drinking at all hours, and then sleeping until late in the afternoon. Claire is a bitch. Hal (Topher Payne) is out to make a name for himself. Robert is insane, brilliant or both. Yet none (and all) of those things is true, as we learn that Catherine was working in the wee hours of the night on her proof. Claire was working not only to support herself but to send money home to keep Catherine and Robert in food, clothing and shelter. Robert's legacy proves to be much more than mathematical. And Hal is the biggest revelation of all.

Topher Payne is fantastic, playing a guy who's basically a goofy math nerd, but he's able to make him likeable, even sexy, managing to convey his confusion and puzzlement when Catherine claims the proof as her own. He knows, he just knows, in his gut, that she's not capable of the type of work he's looking at, but he's so gentle with her, trying to reason with her in his sweet, soothing Mississippi drawl. And when Hal's finally convinced, after days of working through the proof on his own, that he's wrong, he's man enough to say so, and to stand in awe of the elegance of what Catherine has accomplished. Payne and Uterhardt have great chemistry together (if you can say that about a story centered around math). There's never any reconciliation between Catherine and Claire; they're like parallel lines, side by side, never touching. But in Hal Catherine finds acceptance and validation, things her father tried, but failed, to give her because of his illness. It's almost a little too pat, like "all a woman needs to save her is a good man" and if I remember correctly, the movie had Catherine walking off alone, independent, in order to avoid the pat ending. But in Payne and Uterhardt's hands, you sense only the tentative beginnings of a new equation, lines of stress shifting, perceptions changing: the long hard slog of being human made a little easier by sharing it with a kindred soul. Whether it lasts remains a matter for proof.
by janna
Sunday, October 24, 2010
I am new to this site so I am unsure if this is a long enough revue. But my reaction is similar to that voiced by those around me on the night I saw this production: WOW!
This was uttered and whispered several times throughout the show.
One gentleman actually whispered to his friend after a very intense moment "do you think they do that every night?" The energy and connection from the actors was breathtaking! And exhausting!
I spoke with the actors after the show to express my appreciation and overheard something else. A gentleman told the lead actress "If I taught an acting class I would make them see this show." How true! Just great! I hope some of it rubs off on me!
I have seen the movie and didn't really like it but had never seen the play. It is just amazing! So many things were new to me and surprised me (I was one who said "Wow" out loud)
Congratulations to the theater for picking a show it could do so well. And I thank my mom for "dragging" me to the theater!
If you are an actor or director, then see it! [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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