Math dramatics

The richly nuanced "Proof" explores mental illness and familial tension through the lens of mathematics

By Rev. Adam McKinney on November 7, 2019

Until I saw Dukesbay Theater's production of Proof, my only exposure to the play was its 2005 film adaptation. While the film had its admirers, it never clicked for me; I suspected that this material was ill-suited to making the jump to the big screen, a theory that was supported by how much more natural Proof felt on the intimate stage of Dukesbay. The story -- exploring the grounded world of academic mathematics, the tragedy of deteriorating mental health, and the strained relationships of a family -- are done a disservice by the distancing effect of film. You really want to be present with these characters, getting a privileged glimpse into their lives, which is something that Dukesbay and director Randy Clark pull off quite nicely.

It's hard to get into the story of Proof without spoiling one aspect of it, which comes as a surprise, but is revealed in the first scene. We meet Catherine (Chevi Chung) on the eve of her 25th birthday, as she's having a late-night talk with her genius mathematician father Robert (Erik Hill). They chat about this and that, mostly revolving around how Robert's mental illness led to him abruptly exiting an important career in academia, but they eventually reveal that Robert actually died last week, and this conversation is all in Catherine's head.

Now, as they ready Robert's funeral, one of his protegees, Hal (Nick Fitzgerald), has been searching through notebook after scrawled notebook looking for any worthwhile work that Robert might have completed while he was struggling with his illness. Catherine, meanwhile, is worried that she's inherited her father's illness, and sister Claire (Amy Van Mechelen) is visiting after leaving Catherine to take care of their father years ago. On top of all of this, a notebook is discovered in Robert's study that contains a groundbreaking mathematical proof -- but its authorship soon comes into question.

So, all of the pieces are in place for a tightly-contained domestic drama, with nothing in the way of fireworks except for the effectiveness of the performances, and all of the actors here make this material sing. As the wound-up, eminently anxious Catherine, Chung does wonders with what is probably the trickiest role in the play; handled poorly (as, in my opinion, Gwyneth Paltrow did in the film version), the character can easily fall into a series of tics and histrionics. Here, Chung shows Catherine's stubbornness and volatility as a byproduct of the amount of trauma and self-sacrifice she's experienced caring for her father.

And speaking of her father, Hill is outstanding as Robert, particularly in a heartbreaking scene where he proudly shares with Catherine the proof that he thinks will be his next great work. Fitzgerald imbues Hal with tenderness and charm, and Van Mechelen lends nuance and likability to a character that might otherwise be seen as the de facto antagonist of the show. On balance, Proof is a richly compelling, pointedly emotional, and frequently quite funny play.

PROOF, 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Nov. 15, $15, Dukesbay Theater, 508 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253.350.7680,