It’s never a good sign when a production makes you wonder why a Pulitzer Prize-winning play won any award, but that’s the effect of the awkward mounting of David Auburn's Proof at the Gene Frankel Theatre. At least the set displays the invention that a good shoestring production needs. The back yard of a Chicago home has obviously been decorated by George Hoffman and Greg Kozatek on a tight budget, yet it looks just right, with a porch and steps to a yard area, and a white trellis to the side.
The title of Auburn’s play derives from mathematics. Catherine (Leonarda Bosch), the daughter of a brilliant math professor at the university, has followed him into the field, but without achieving his success. Indeed, she has stalled her career deliberately to take care of him as a ravaging mental illness took its toll. Apart from nine lucid months in the midst of an affliction that lasted several years, Robert, her father, wrote gibberish. But in those lucid months, did he come up with a brilliant solution to a famous and thorny math problem?
After his death, Robert (Andre J. Langton) appears to Catherine as a ghost (the play also includes a flashback scene to his lucid period), and he urges her to pull herself together—she has been drinking heavily and loafing in bed. Her recuperation is sparked by the arrival of Hal (Reid Prebenda), a former student and admirer of her father’s who urges Catherine to let him sort the professor’s papers in case something valuable lies there, especially from the lucid period. The fourth character is Claire, Catherine’s sister, who lives in New York but arrives for the funeral with some unwelcome news.
Auburn is especially good at conveying the sexism underlying the mathematics discipline, and the sacrifices a caretaker in a family makes when looking after an ill parent, and the resulting resentments it can spark with other family members. Unfortunately, S. Quincy Beard’s production suffers from a slackness, with pockets of air. There's a sporadic hesitancy in the delivery, as if the actors are unsure of their lines, and sometimes how to physicalize them. Hal at one point says he was “this close” to quitting, but provides no accompanying gesture. Other lapses are baffling. When Hal leaves immediately after Catherine has caught him with a purloined notebook of her father’s, he says, “I can let myself out,” then walks up the steps and enters the house, presumably to exit through the front door. Later, however, he arrives in the back yard simply by coming around the side of the house. Why would he have needed to go through the house rather than around it in the earlier scene?
Among the actors, the more seasoned Langton fares best. He displays an energy that his colleagues often lack. He manages to imbue his dialogue with gravitas and uses his voice well. The varying pitch, volume, and pacing, one suspects, come more from greater acting experience than from directorial help, since the younger actors generally have less nuance in their delivery. (It’s noteworthy that when he talks about “touching the old jackets,” he finds an appropriate gesture.)
His three colleagues have their moments, but their disparate emotions never seem to belong to a single person. As Catherine, Bosch veers from whiny and annoying to sympathetic, but the elements don’t add up to the feeling of a real person. Her best scene is near the end, as she reads her father’s latest work, realizes it’s gibberish, and slowly tears up.
In their scenes together, the actresses seem to be in a race to be more unsympathetic. Natasha R. Brown plays Claire as a clueless bully rather than a meddling sibling whose overbearing nature may hold some consideration for her sister's feelings. She has one brief success, conveying the amusing effects of a hangover, but she is crude in every sentient moment, literally rubbing her chin to convey thinking.
Prebenda displays a gaucheness and charm in Hal that work for the character of a math geek; he also looks more athletic than most nerds, and he comes across as a young man with a physical life as well as an intellectual one. He has a nice reaction to his older teacher’s jokes, but there’s no real chemistry between Hal and Catherine, making Auburn’s last scene feel bogus. In fact, too much of this production does no service to the playwright.