Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Decades before our play begins, Robert in his early twenties set the mathematics world afire with multi-faceted discoveries that ensured his still-hallowed reputation as a genius and trailblazer. Also while in his twenties, his brilliant mind began a long decline into its own muddled world from which confused numbers and words spilled day and night into 100+ handwritten journals. We meet Robert from the mind's eye and memory bank of his daughter Catherine, who roams listlessly about their back porch patio in suburban Chicago as midnight approaches (an eye-catching and authentic set by Annie Smart). With a cheap bottle of bubbly as her companion, she awaits her 25th birthday, her father's next-day funeral, and her older sister Claire's arrival from New York. A clone of her father in many respects, Claire has foregone her own pursuit of a mathematics degree the past four years to care for him.
Her wandering, mental conversations with her father are suddenly interrupted by Hal, a young math PhD from the University of Chicago who has been locked for hours upstairs trying to discern if there are hidden meanings in the cryptic journals of her famed father. Sparks begin to fly between the two that spawn both from her suspicions of his true intentions in getting his hands on her father's journals and from what is clearly some growing sexual attraction between the 20-somethings. By the time sister Claire saunters in with her New York airs and sophistication and with plans to sell the family house and move Catherine to the Big Apple, electricity is literally popping in the air. Tensions rise on all sides as new discoveries begin erupting left and right involving everything from a frantic 911 call to police to a night of blissful lovemaking to a revealed and mysterious journal filled with a proof that has eluded mathematicians for generations. Who is thought to be and who claims to be the author of said proof sends the audience into intermission buzzing with hypotheses and anticipation of act two.
L. Peter Callender, even as a memory of Robert, captures in his portrayal the professor (and father) anyone might want to have. His eyes twinkle as a new idea is discovered or an encouragement is passed on to waiting ears. Every word is spoken with an exactness and clarity to engender attention and awe. The sheer excitement that he brings to a detailed, poetic description of the academic world coming alive every September in bookstores full of browsing students is contagious. Yet the pain of a life of mental illness and the pathos of years lost after one moment of early brilliance are always close to the surface and ready to cloud over Mr. Callender's Robert.
Michelle Beck displays a phenomenally wide range of emotions, states of mind, and energy levels as Catherine. On the one hand, we see haunting fears of following her father's path into mental demise, frustrated anger with her sister's parachuting in and taking control now that dad's gone, and shocked hurt at an obvious betrayal by the guy she trusted infallibly. But with equal mastery, Beck's Catherine can become a giggling girl joking with her dad, a passionate lover-to-be about to charter new territories, or a brainy scholar with perhaps no equal.
Hal bounces into scenes with an immediate energy, likeability, and enthusiasm for everything and everyone around him. As the cute, lanky drummer of a rock band of math geeks whose hit number is "i" (a three-minute, silent homage to imaginary numbers), Lance Gardner as Hal demolishes any preconceptions we may bring about the typical mathematician. But his Hal also becomes an enigma as he transforms so quickly into a wound-up ball of distrust and suspicion and ponies up to an old boys' club view of who can and cannot produce what kind of mathematical brilliance. Mr. Gardner knows how to pull in an audience as allies and pals and then smack them with a reality of how the world really is.
Ashley Bryant completes this incredibly talented ensemble with a Claire who is so tightly strung and perfectly put together that there is always a sense that she is the one who could break apart any minute. Claire's obvious scheming and insistence on directing outcomes appears devious and self-centered at first. But she also reveals in subtle glances and worried brows a deep love of her sister and an unspoken fear of Catherine's own mental state.
In this all-African-American casting, questions about duty to loved ones versus to one's self; fears of destined academic, mental, and relationship failure; and deep, unspoken prejudices against women in a historically male-dominated realm take on new meanings. These four individuals of color have all undoubtedly faced challenges and overcome roadblocks not necessarily conceived for them in David Auburn's original script. Their journeys bring entire new meaning and depth to an already complex set of themes.
That choice of casting color along with this particular set of talent-rich actors makes this Proof a sure-fire winner and a reason for anyone, even if having seen Proof in the past, to make tracks to Mountain View for another viewing.
The TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of Proof continues through November 1, 2015, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org or by calling the box office at 650-903-6000, noon 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.