by David Auburn
Produced by Firebelly Productions
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Proof is less a great play than a great opportunity for actors to put together a memorable and satisfying evening of theater. The slender plot revolves around the discovery of a complex and significant mathematical proof locked in the desk drawer of Robert (Don Kenefick,) a brilliant but long-demented mathematician, now dead. Did the dead scientist write the proof? Or was his caretaker daughter Catherine (Katy Carkuff), bright but undereducated and emotionally volatile, responsible for this fantastic paper? David Auburn’s script lays the question down neatly among some other, broader philosophical challenges, including the uncomfortable proximity of genius and madness and the imperative nature of trust.
So how did Firebelly Productions, the young company currently operating out of Theatre on the Run in Arlington, do? The results are mixed but generally good. Firebelly, and director Ali Miller, have put together an attractive cast whose human dilemmas are presented to us without embroidery. However, they have lost some of the broader issues in bringing the play to earth.
Let us get to the worst problem first, so that we can spend the remainder of our time celebrating what Firebelly has done well. This production shows no evidence of understanding the fire in the mind that is genius, and thus does not make Robert, or to a lesser extent Catherine, fully come to life. John Forbes Nash, in Sylvia Nasar’s excellent biography A Beautiful Mind, recalled the time a colleague challenged him to explain how he, one of the great minds of the 20th century, could imagine that aliens were attempting to contact him through newspaper articles and radio shows, or that he would one day sit at the Left Hand of God. His answer was crucially revealing, about genius and about madness: he believed these crazy impulses, because he received them from the precise spot in his mind where he had found his contributions to game theory and the other discoveries which eventually won him the Nobel prize.
I believed Kenefick as a sweet-natured older gentleman, professorial and generative. I did not for an instant believe that he was a man who had discovered, by the age of 22, three groundbreaking theorems in different fields. The personality Auburn painted for Robert describes a man whose mind is given over to channel the mind of God, or of the Universe, and who is unable to discern, when the message comes, whether it is greatness or garbage. This is a dismayingly frequent affliction among highest-level mathematicians; I knew one – an expert in simultaneous chess, who could play, and beat, forty players at once – who was forever wandering into the incorrect lavatories, and who once came to a party with his coat inside out. (“I wondered why I couldn’t get it to button,” he said when his error was pointed out to him.) I saw not a hint of this tendency, this excitement for intellectual adventure, in Kenefick’s Robert, and so the nature of the burden he laid upon his family, or the consequent misery for them, was not apparent. The lack is significant.
Catherine’s dilemma is less madness than fear of madness. The cannon-voiced Ms. Carkuff, who otherwise turns in a great performance, is not vulnerable enough for us to see that fear, and when she finally articulates it outright in the last scene it seems manipulative, rather than authentic.
Carkuff hits all the other notes, though. Her Catherine’s wild, rapid-fire intelligence radiates through every scene, and I have never seen the role done with such impatient volatility and anger. One instantly understands that around Catherine, the ground is littered with eggshells; to talk to her you must walk on them. This is Auburn’s intention, and Carkuff achieves it fully. At the same time, Carkuff makes Catherine immensely appealing, and we are all ready to root her on against her domineering sister.
A word about the sister. Proof is really about doubt, and is designed so that by the time the play’s central dilemma is presented to us, we are uncertain how it should be resolved. One of the ways Auburn achieves this effect is to fool us about the characters, who appear to be one thing as the play opens and turn out to be quite another as the play progresses. This is particularly important for Catherine’s sister Claire, who flies in from New York to organize her late father’s disheveled household. K. Clare Johnson achieves her objective with great facility and aplomb. Initially, she seems like the voice of sweet reason in the face of her sister’s explosive bombasticness. Without losing a single one of the character elements she laid down, Johnson lays on the manipulation during the course of the evening. It is a fine performance.
But best of all is the work done by Daniel Eicher as the young mathematician Hal. A student of Robert’s who has grinded his way through graduate school and now has a teaching position at the University of Chicago, Hal, like most of us, is a plugger who can recognize genius, while being incapable of it himself. Eicher’s Hal is the quintessential nerd – not as they exist in the cartoons, with their thick glasses and pocket protectors, but as they exist in real life, vibrant and funny but in love with their work, and ready to worship in the cathedral that is higher mathematics. Hal is a man balancing terrific conflicts – his respect for the old man, who Hal nevertheless recognizes was insane for most of his later life; his growing affection for Catherine, who he nonetheless understands is deeply disturbed; the tentative nature of his involvement with a family which is undergoing a deep and most private crisis; his desire to mine Robert’s notebooks, which appear to be a heap of drivel, for some last golden nugget of insight. Eicher radiates all of these tensions without himself being tense on stage, and the effect is absolutely credible. Eicher even does what for an actor might be considered a magic trick: he blushes on stage at the right time.
Production values were serviceable, but minimal. Auburn set the play in the back yard of a decaying Chicago bungalow, and Miller’s set was adequate to the task. Sound designer Sam Walker chose to flood the scene changes with various pieces of music which had no discernable relationship to the show. Some of the songs were pretty and some of them were annoying, but the net effect was as if a petulant child, having been made to turn the radio down during the play, defiantly turned it up during the scene changes.
Firebelly has turned in a good, workmanlike production of one of the last decade’s better plays, and it is on the whole a satisfying two hours of theater – especially given the very reasonable ticket prices. I look forward to more productions from this company as they grow in savvy, skill and resources
Proof, produced by Firebelly Productions, continues Tuesdays through Sundays at Theatre on the Run, 3799 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, until November 19. Sundays are at 2 p.m., all other shows are at 8 p.m. No show Tuesday, November 7. Tickets are $15; $12 for students and those 65 and over. For seniors, students, and actors with ID, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are $5. Seniors are $5 on Sundays. To order, go to http://www.firebellyproductions.net/ or call 703.409.2372.