Preview: Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof

Photo by Bruce Peters: Dan Willmott, Karen Slater & Chris Peterson

New kid on the block Theatre UnBlocked is off to a great start, mounting its inaugural production, David Auburn’s Proof, directed by Carl Jackson, to a packed preview house at Red Sandcastle Theatre last night.

The elegant beauty of math and the minds behind it comes to life in this intimate production. Catherine (Karen Slater), who has been living at the family home outside Chicago, sits on the back porch and chats with her father Robert (Dan Willmott). Thing is, Robert’s dead—and his funeral is tomorrow.

Robert was a brilliant mathematician and professor; he was also living with mental illness, a condition that irreparably damaged his ability to work and thrive. Despite the urging of her well-meaning older sister Claire (Andrea Brown), Catherine had eschewed institutionalization for their father, and left her own studies in math behind, leaving the work she loved for a dearly beloved father. Numb and exhausted, Catherine’s interest in connecting with people is renewed when Hal (Chris Peterson), a mathematician and former student of Robert’s comes to the house to sort through Robert’s papers and notebooks.

Drawn by Hal’s drive, and their shared love and appreciation for her father, Catherine gradually opens up and shares another notebook with Hal; one that’s been locked away in her father’s desk. It looks like Robert’s handwriting, but she says it’s hers. And what it contains is a 40-page proof that mathematicians have been trying to work out for a very long time. Concerned that Catherine inherited their father’s unstable mind, Claire has her doubts; she’s also been trying to coax Catherine to come live with her in Manhattan, as she intends to sell the house. Hal has doubts too; and offers to show the proof to some colleagues to check its veracity and authenticate its authorship. Is Catherine crazy? Or is she a genius? And does Hal genuinely care for her—or is he using her for a treasure hunt?

Simply staged in an intimate space, with the sounds of crickets and birds setting us firmly in the easy lull of a home outside the urban buzz of the city’s core, this production of Proof combines the poetry of nature with the beauty of science and mathematics.

The cast does a remarkable job with this story of math, family, mental illness and gifted minds. Slater gives a lovely, layered performance as the troubled and brilliant Catherine. An exceptional but neglected mind, Catherine puts up walls to separate herself from others, and humour and sarcasm are her weapons of choice; all in defense of the deeply hurt, tired and lost girl beneath. She knows what she knows—but fears that, like her father, she may be going crazy. Willmott brings a gentle, good-humoured cheekiness to Robert; a mathematician with the heart of a poet, and a brilliant but unstable mind—a driven man immersed in his work. The two-hander scenes between Catherine and Robert are both tender and sharply funny; revealing a genuine love, understanding and appreciation—a pairing of kindred spirits.

4-Catherine-HungoverClaire
Karen Slater & Andrea Irwin in Proof – photo by Bruce Peters

Irwin does a fabulous job mining the many facets of Claire, shifting between gentle caregiver and ‘big sister knows best,’ not to mention one hell of a funny hangover performance. Claire genuinely cares about Catherine’s welfare, but with a mind on the practical issues at hand, wants to sell the family home and keep Catherine close. Like Catherine, she’s concerned that her sister may be on the same path as their father; and while she also inherited some serious math skills and works as a currency analyst, there’s a tinge of painful sibling rivalry in that she didn’t have as close a relationship with Robert—or her sister’s brilliant mind. Peterson brings an adorkable charm and boyish drive to Hal, the mathematician who plays drums in a geek rock band. Like Catherine, Hal was close to Robert, who was a mentor and perhaps even a father figure to him. Reluctant to believe in Catherine’s abilities, he finds it hard to fathom that she authored this newly discovered proof—a reminder that, even 17 years after Proof was first produced, male-dominated STEM careers still present the challenge of gender-based assumptions. And you know what they say about ‘assume.’

Brilliant, fragile minds at work in the tender, sharply funny Proof.

Proof officially opens tonight and continues at Red Sandcastle Theatre until March 19. Advance tickets are available online—strongly recommended, given the intimate space and the size of last night’s preview audience. Go check out what the kids at Theatre UnBlocked are doing with this timely and thoughtful production.

You can also keep up with Theatre UnBlocked on Twitter.

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Author: life with more cowbell

Arts/culture social bloggerfly & Elwood P. Dowd disciple. Likes playing with words. A lot. Toronto

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