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Balanced Equation

Everyman's Production of Proof is Greater Than the Sum of its Parts

Irrational Number: Megan Anderson excels as the brilliant but troubled Catherine in Proof.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/11/2004



At the Everyman Theatre through Feb. 29

The new Everyman Theatre production of Proof provides the best evening of theater in Baltimore since Center Stage did Edward Albee's Three Tall Women two Februarys ago. David Auburn's Proof, which richly deserved its 2001 Pulitzer Prize, is a brilliant mix of story, character, and wit, and it gets a superb staging at Everyman, highlighted by Megan Anderson's astonishing performance.

Proof is the fictional story of Robert, a famous University of Chicago mathematician who wrote three world-changing proofs in his 20s, only to descend into dementia by his 50s. The central character, though, is his daughter Catherine, who drops out of college to take care of her doddering father and who rattles around their big Hyde Park house, wondering how much of her dad's genius and madness she has inherited.

It opens on the back porch of that Hyde Park house with the 25-year-old Catherine sprawled on a ratty old armchair in faded bell-bottom jeans and maroon-dyed bangs. Like the Scarlett Johansson character in Lost in Translation, Catherine is adrift in that no man's land between school and career, and she takes it out on her father in prickly retorts and passive-aggressive sarcasm. In the role made famous by Mary-Louise Parker (on Broadway) and Gwyneth Paltrow (in London and in the forthcoming movie), Megan Anderson gets this just right--the slouchy posture, the combative banter, and the quickness to find reasons for not doing anything.

As annoying as Catherine is, she never loses our sympathy, for Auburn makes it clear that her outer shell is merely a veneer over an acute intelligence and a longing for achievement and love. And Anderson brings out this inner life as effectively as she does the facade. You can see it in the way her eyes light up when the talk turns to math, you can see it in the way her toughness melts when her dad really needs help, and you can see it in the hunger of her kiss when she lifts her face up to that of Hal, Robert's former doctoral student.

Hal is a 28-year-old math professor going through Robert's notebooks after the latter's death. As played by Robert McClure, he is a tall, goateed Gen-Xer who is clearly smitten with Catherine but whose clumsiness extends to his tongue, which is always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Hal may not share Robert's genius, but he has made a comfortable, normal life for himself, and so has Claire, Robert's other daughter who arrives for the funeral.

As played by Deborah Hazlett in fashionable turtlenecks and yuppie assurance, Claire gives Catherine condescending, nicey-nice lectures about what she should do. "Don't lie to me," Catherine says. "I'm smarter than you." Maybe so, but the older sister does have a thriving career, a devoted boyfriend, and her own apartment--three things that Catherine lacks. Auburn, Anderson, and Hazlett capture this sibling rivalry perfectly.

The plot is driven by the possibility that Robert might have left behind an important math breakthrough. At the end of the first act, Hal finds a notebook in Robert's office that contains a fourth world-class proof. When Catherine claims that she wrote it, the notion seems so preposterous that Hal and Claire have every right to doubt her. It seems more likely that this college dropout inherited her dad's delusions than his genius.

The entire second act is devoted to unraveling the mystery, and director Vincent Lancisi--with help from Carl Schurr (Robert) and the rest of the cast--keeps the storytelling taut and gripping. But the whodunit suspense is the least part of the play, as is the minimal math involved.

The true theme is how we cope with a towering parental figure--whether a father or a doctoral adviser. Where is the proof we have achieved something that's truly our own? Where is the proof we have found a true love outside our original family?

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