Thursday, January 30, 2003

Proof exalts faith: Without each other, we are nothing

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The line between genius and madness is a fine one, explored thoroughly in the fascinating and insightful book Touched with Fire, by Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, illustrating parallels between intellectual brilliance and abject insanity. Lord Byron, for example, worried that giving up the manic highs of his bipolar illness would destroy his ability to write beautiful poems. More people should read Jamison’s work, or, instead, head to Lewiston to see Proof.

When a play that won a Pulitzer Prize as recently as 2001, and won a “best play” Tony the same year, comes to Lewiston, Maine, theatergoers should sit up and take notice. And when that play comes to Lewiston’s Public Theatre, a gem of a theater, with a growing following that, after a dozen years, is slowly getting the attention of southward-looking Portlanders, all Mainers should sit down in the theater’s cozy darkness and watch.

The play has been advertised as based on the story of the brilliant and crazy mathematician John Nash, played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. That’s not entirely true, but the concept is similar, and there is a twist. Rather than being about the smart-and-crazy Nash type, Proof is about a 25-year-old woman, daughter of the Nash type, worrying about whether she has inherited her father’s gift for math, his insanity, or both.

She is living in her father’s house, caring for him after his madness has made him unable to function independently. In the opening scene, her father tells her she might be fine. After all, he says, “Crazy people don’t sit around wondering if they’re nuts. They’ve got better things to do.”

But, when it becomes clear that her father’s presence is but a vision of a man who’s been dead for a week, whose funeral is scheduled for that very morning, he tells her it “could be a bad sign.”

Proof follows the daughter, Catherine (played by Shannon Emerick), wrestling with memories of her father, Robert (Stephen Bradbury), as she and her sister Claire (Kathleen Ferman) settle their father’s affairs. Into the mix is also folded a wild card in Hal (Jon Egging).

A former student of Robert’s, now established in his own mathematical career, Hal vows to examine all of the notebooks Robert filled during his insanity, looking for small sparks of genius that may have remained in the darkness of Robert’s madness. He also becomes a love interest for Catherine, even as Claire plans for the possible future madness of her sister, who is also a mathematical genius.

In the phrasing of logical mathematics, all are searching for elegance and straightforward life, amid the inelegant lumps of reality. But unlike rational math, Proof plumbs the depths and climbs the heights of human emotion. Powerful rages and the highest elation share stage time with melancholy, inertia, frustration, and loss of hope, all powerfully portrayed by a strong cast.

As should be expected of an award-winning play, the writing is incredible, with nary a wasted word and strong emotional control over the audience at all times.

The blocking makes use of the entire set, an elaborately detailed back-porch environment, solidly built and unchanged for the duration of the show. Body language and facial expression are right on and demonstrative enough that even the people in the rear of the theater can understand.

Emerick plays a passionate, worried Catherine who is in the very early stages of possible mental illness. Her numerous monologues, usually in the form of emotional tirades, are closely controlled to ensure she comes off as the strong-but-bitter, scared-but-cynical young woman the character is. Her interactions with Bradbury are wonderful to enjoy, and her sense of moment and timing are exquisite.

Against Ferman, Emerick moves skillfully through family dynamics and a younger sister’s fight for independence, even as she is unsure of her ability to carry it off. And with Egging, she ranges effortlessly through wariness, puppy love, and affection into outrage at his betrayal, the most egregious thing one intellectual could do to another: expressing disbelief at demonstrated ability. It is a crucial moment, and one she carries powerfully.

At its core, Proof is about faith and trust as much as it is about logic. While scholars can work on the basis of proof alone, and have their minds and careers truly changed by logic, human beings need to be believed in, and to believe in others.

The play explores the relationships between people whose intellectual foundations rest on logic, but whose emotional bases are closer to the heart. It even explains the separation with the concept of “machinery” — Robert’s word for his mathematical mind, distinct from his brain and his body.

And rather than depersonalizing emotion and human interaction at the expense of mathematics, Proof humanizes math and logic, showing how important brilliant, crazy people are to our world.


Written by David Auburn, directed by Janet Mitchko. With Stephen Bradbury, Shannon Emerick, Jon Egging and Kathleen Ferman. The Public Theatre, Lewiston, through Feb. 2. Call (207) 782-3200.