Were this a world in which all things must be proven, we wouldn’t get much done in it. I sit at a chair as I write this review; my fingers fly across the keyboard as I work. On the table before me, a glass of water sits in a small, circular puddle of its own condensation. Five ice cubes float in the glass.
Say I had to prove this chair will continually support my weight in order to sit in it, that the fluid in the glass remains non-poisonous each time before I drink, or that the power will stay on long enough for me to finish this review on my computer. If we had to constantly prove these–and a thousand similar propositions of everyday life–we’d spend our lives doing little beside obsessive-compulsively testing its minutia. And there are positions even more extreme: Radical scepticism holds that nothing–absolutely nothing–can be ultimately proven.
Though most of us imagine we live in less ascetic territory, we all negotiate the realms of certitude and doubt on a daily basis. We tinker with the ratio of proof and belief.
These show up in our relationships–the degrees to which we are willing to trust based on available evidence and evanescent convictions and feelings.
Interestingly enough, they also show up in our science and mathematics. Axioms are, after all, assertions that cannot be proven. They must be accepted on faith. Axioms are also the foundation upon which higher mathematics are built.
David Auburn’s intriguing play, Proof, asks what ultimately can be proven–and what must be taken on faith–in the realms of science and human relationships.
All of the characters in this elegant play appear to have something to prove. Catherine, the somewhat unstable daughter of a brilliant deceased mathematician, claims to have authored a major mathematic proof concerning the behavior of prime numbers. Hal, one of the mathematician’s students, may actually be falling in love with Catherine for herself, and not responding out of his professional interests in her father’s legacy. Meanwhile, Claire, Catherine’s older sister, may actually have Catherine’s best interests at heart as she plans to sell the house she lives in out from under her. And the persistent appearances of Robert, the dead father, in the play’s scenes may represent a slipping sanity–or something else entirely.
Given that these uncertainties are the hinges on which Auburn’s play moves, the swiftness with which such ambiguities are resolved in the course of the current PlayMakers Repertory Company production is unexpected.
Part of the difficulty comes in director Ted Shaffner’s concept of Catherine, his central character. We’re never seriously given to question her sanity–or, at least, not seriously enough. After a spectral birthday toast in a dream with her dead father in the first scene, there’s evidence aplenty that she’s depressed–but nothing ever suggests she’s ever delusional, desperate, or that she ever lies.
Like math geek Hal, this Catherine mainly comes off as a little down–and less than completely schooled in the finer social graces. That’s about all. There’s no reason to disbelieve her. And since the only one who does is a thoroughly unsympathetic sister (Connan Morrissey), the audience is even less inclined to do so. In short, this production pulls for Catherine, and it does so early. Of course, she wrote the proof.
With the central question of the script never seriously placed in doubt–at least, again, not seriously enough–the dramatic tensions which could have been explored remain relatively underfunded. With the answers already determined, we wait for things to play out in Paul Green Theater, instead of wondering how they might do so.
Philip Davidson’s avuncular turn here as father Robert is yet another role to be savored, and Connan Morrissey similarly conveys a sister always trying to hide that straitjacket she just knows her sister needs behind her back.
But Andy Paris as Hal and Christina Ross as Catherine come off as too unambiguous on the whole. Since we know from early on that they’re basically an OK couple of kids, an entire list of questions about who, how and why we believe never comes into play. Ironically, since certain things in this production of Proof are proven far too easily and too early, some of the most important issues the play could raise never get a chance to be.