Serious mathematics is foreign to most people, or lots of income tax advisers would be out of work. But give us a good family squabble, or the ups and downs of a love affair, and we're glued to our theater seats. "Proof" proves that in a strong, well-balanced production by the Insight Theatre Company. It opened last night at Nerinx Hall's Heagney Theatre and will run through Oct. 10.
David Auburn's drama, which won both the Tony and a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, is a play about a University of Chicago genius-level mathematics professor, his two daughters and a young doctoral candidate. It opens in a Chicago back yard, a week after aging mathematician Robert (a solid John Contini) has died. A man of genius, he has been slowly losing his grip on reality and on the mathematical "proof" he is trying to find. His daughters are 25-year-old Catherine (a splendid Colleen Caul), who carries her father's mathematical strengths and abandoned her own college education to become his caretaker, and Claire (a rock-hard Erin Kelley), the elder, who left for New York, a career and a relationship, both obviously successful.
Hal (an outstanding performance by Matt Lindhardt) is the outsider, a math student who is an intellectual disciple who has been poring through Robert's notebooks, trying to differentiate between genius and gibberish and, perhaps, get them into shape for publication.
Robert, seen both as a ghost and in a superb, climactic flashback, is beautifully drawn by Contini, who walks a fine line between normality and nonsense. Lindhardt totally inhabits Hal, torn between lust and learning, but his sudden change of attitude toward Catherine after their passionate weekend seems odd. Caul does a superior job as Catherine, showing the variety of genetics she is handling as Robert's daughter and delivering the gorgeous first-act curtain line with real style. Claire's change of heart and desire to reunite with the sister she has scorned is rather inexplicable, but the love-hate relationship probably has existed since childhood. Kelley, her attitude as unmoving as her brass-blonde hair, is beautifully duplicitous.
Wayne Loui directed stylishly, refusing to tart things up and allowing Auburn's fine use of language to carry things along. Sarah Hoeynck's set design is just right.
Proof, produced by the Insight Theatre Company, through Oct. 10