David Auburn’s Proof made me feel a little bit good about myself when I saw it twice on Broadway in 2001. Despite my being a Calculus drop-out, I’m not so different from Catherine, Robert, and Hal—math geniuses that talk about their insecurities and argue about whether to eat pasta for dinner. I can even understand the basic tenet of Catherine’s proof, which uncovers something about Germain primes (take a prime number, double it, add one, and you get another prime number… simple, right?)
Back in 2001 I had a flip phone with a two-inch screen and no Internet capabilities. In 2016, I spend my intermissions researching aspects of a show that I find most fascinating. For Proof, I discovered that even Wikipedia is far over my head regarding the work of Sophie Germain. It appears that much of her work focused on explorations of something called “Fermat’s Last Theory” from 1670, and she has the demoralizing habit of creating formulas with symbols that I have never seen.
Despite the blow to my ego, I am grateful to ColorBox Theater for revisiting Auburn’s Pulitzer-winning exploration of familial relationships within the context of exceptional minds. This small-scale production at Royal George’s 40-seat upstairs theater starring Liz Dillard as Catherine focuses less on the protagonist’s aggressive outbursts and more on the heroic sacrifices she made for her father Robert (Lawrence Garner). For Catherine, Robert is simultaneously a revered pioneer in her chosen field of mathematics, a caring and protective parent, and a burden that required her complete attention for four years following the degeneration of his mind.
Auburn’s script is a testament to the power of non-chronological storytelling with its first act that creates more questions than it answers. What incidents led to Catherine’s current depression? Why is Catherine’s relationship with her sister Claire (Alex Pelletier) so antagonistic? Who wrote the proof in Robert’s desk drawer?—a proof that will be ground-breaking, but is it valid?
Colorbox’s production hinges on the first scene of Act II, a flashback to a year when Robert was lucid enough for Catherine to leave home to study math at Northwestern. Garner provides a perfectly understated speech about what brings him joy—his role as a mentor to eager young minds at the University of Chicago. This scene provides credibility for the Catherine-Robert relationship, which stems beyond the usual bond between a daughter and her father, while paving a pathway to the show’s climax. Dillard’s performance hits its peak during the play’s climax when a look inside Robert’s recently-filled notebooks forces Catherine to accept what she already knew—her father’s brain had returned to delirium with no hope of recovery.
The two remaining actors both provide noteworthy performances. As Hal, Ian Greers emphasizes the awkwardness of a young mathematician caught between hero worship of his departed professor and his desires to further his relationship with Catherine. Pelletier manages to develop some sympathy for Claire despite the character’s arrogance and tendency to bring up emotional topics at inopportune times.
Colorbox is a relatively new theater company now in its third season. Co-Founders Kurt Konow and Michelle Konow have a stated mission to provide opportunities for emerging artists to collaborate and explore new works. If Proof is any indication, Colobox may find a niche in dusting off modern classics for Chicago audiences ready to take second look.