You would not typically expect theater and mathematics to mix, yet David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning play Proof is no ordinary play, and SBCC’s production is no ordinary production. The plot centers on Catherine, a brilliant 25-year-old, as she faces her mathematical genius father’s death and grapples with mental illness. The drama’s title is defined in the playbill’s useful Glossary of Terms, and refers to both a mathematical proof and Catherine’s problem of proving the authorship of a historically significant proof to her concerned sister, Claire, and her father’s inquisitive PhD student Hal.
Accurate in its use of mathematical references and terms, the play offers a glimpse into the mathematical world and uses naturalistic subtlety to teach the audience as they follow along. The four-person cast convincingly quotes the great German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, discusses gender bias in the mathematical field, and swaps stories about a funeral party with theoretical physicists. Impressively, all of this intellectual fluency is interwoven with the tenacious strength and bleak sarcasm of Katherine Bottoms as Catherine; the charisma and modern nerdiness of Alex Coleman as Hal; the fatherly warmth of Paul Canter as Catherine’s father, Robert; and the sisterly impatience of Amanda Gustafsson as Catherine’s sister, Claire.
Bolstering the actors’ realism and stealing the show, the television-like verism of the set and its accompanying costume and light design persuade the audience to believing they are in the real world and outside on the back porch of a crumbling brick house in Chicago. Most remarkably, the masterful set creates the mood for the entire play with its dead plants, eerie purple night lighting, and elaborately detailed life-sized walls.
While the production explores relationships in a powerfully moving and well-structured episodic format, the acting performances have their shortcomings. Watching Catherine struggle with the fear of following in her father’s footsteps and losing mental control becomes tiring, as Bottoms’s performance fails to project necessary emotional nuances visibly onstage beyond anger, hopeless confusion, and humorous defensiveness. Though her conversations with Coleman’s lively Hal exude good chemistry, whenever their characters’ romance unexpectedly arises, their connection falls flat.
Yet when considering the difficulty of transmitting this story about family, genius, and mental instability, it is easy to forgive the lack of nuance since the actors effectively maintain a steady vigor despite the weight of Proof’s seriousness. For philosophical explorers and theatergoers, those who value the math of the heart and the art of performance, Proof is a fascinating, must-see show!
Proof runs Wednesdays-Fridays, April 15-30, at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., at SBCC’s Jurkowitz Theatre (721 Cliff Dr.). For tickets and more information, call (805) 965-5935 or visit theatergroupsbcc.com.