Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 39
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
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FATHER, DAUGHTER, MATHEMATICS: Catherine (Arielle Sandor) and her father Robert (Shawn Fennell), both troubled math geniuses, struggle with their inextricably linked lives and careers in Theatre Intime’s production of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Proof” at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through Saturday October 3.

David Auburn’s “Proof” Opens 2009-10 Season at Intime: Mental Illness, Math and Romance Mix in Moving Family Drama

Donald Gilpin

Math-phobes need not fear. Yes, the “proof” of the title does refer to a mathematics proof, specifically proof of a theorem about prime numbers that mathematicians for centuries have been trying to verify. Yes, the play is set in a mathematical realm: on the porch of the home of a genius mathematician and his mathematician daughter. And, yes, three of the four characters in the play are talented mathematicians.

But there are just not enough avid theater-going mathematicians out there to have kept David Auburn’s Proof running at the Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Mary-Louise Parker and Larry Bryggman, for five months in 2000, then on Broadway for more than two years, where it picked up both the Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2001, before becoming a 2005 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins.

What this play, and its broad appeal, is most essentially about is a young woman’s struggle to cope with the death of her father and her fear that she has inherited his mental illness along with his mathematical genius. It is the story of 25-year-old Catherine’s coming of age and coming to grips with the most crucial decisions of her life: her budding relationship with a young math professor who is studying her father’s work, her own possible career in mathematics, her difficult relationship with her sister Claire — all in the context of their father’s death after a long period in which Catherine has been his sole caretaker.

The play is skillfully structured over a series of nine scenes in two acts to deftly interweave events of the present, the day of the father’s funeral and the days before and after, with scenes between Catherine and her father from the past and from Catherine’s imagination.

Theatre Intime’s production of David Auburn’s “Proof” runs for three more performances, Thursday, October 1 through Saturday, October 3, at 8 p.m. at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call 609-258-1742 or visit for tickets and visit for further information.

The Theatre Intime cast of four creates a strong, focused ensemble, under the direction of sophomore Gabriel Greenwood. The three-dimensional characters emerge vividly. Their relationships are convincing and complex. Despite a rather thin plot, the suspense surrounding Catherine’s future and the question of whether she actually created the groundbreaking mathematical proof found in one of her father’s notebooks builds with drama and interest, as the pace moves swiftly from scene to scene. The humor—these mathematicians are very funny—is witty and well balanced with the more serious subject matter of the play.

In the academic setting of the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, Proof is an excellent choice to open the 2009-10 Theatre Intime season. The talent and commitment of these four actors set the bar high for a promising season ahead.

Set, lighting and sound are stark but adequate in representing the math professor’s Chicago porch, where the entire play takes place, but it’s hard to believe that Robert could have actually lived and raised a family here. An upgrade with more realistic detail, nuance and atmosphere would have helped to support these performers and to create the world of this interesting man and his daughter.

Arielle Sandor as Catherine creates an appealing, sympathetic protagonist, displaying a wide range of credible emotions as she interacts with her loving, controlling father; battles with her calculating older sister; and ventures into an intimate relationship, alternately embracing and rejecting the affections of Hal.

Shawn Fennell as her father Robert is the one member of the young cast making a significant stretch in age, and he does it with conviction and technical skill. Though the generation gap between Robert and the other characters is not always credible, Mr. Fennell is on target in portraying Robert’s difficult relationship with his self-sacrificing daughter, his struggles with age and mental illness, and his unassuming professorial demeanor in working with his graduate student Hal.

Max Rosmarin’s Hal, graduate student in flashbacks/eager mathematics professor in the present, contributes a warm dose of humor, entertaining glimpses into the world of university mathematicians, and powerfully moving scenes where his passions for mathematics and Catherine mix and clash. The romantic scenes between Catherine and Hal — with a winning blend of wit, affection and conflict — are particularly believable and engaging.

As older sister Claire, a pragmatic businesswoman who flies in from New York for the funeral, Jenna Devine adds a dynamic element of conflict and contrast to the proceedings. She is the outsider in the play, the only non-mathematician from the world of reality, as she doubts Catherine’s authorship of the mathematical theorem, clashes with Hal, and attempts to take Catherine back to New York with her, away from the home and world of their father, where Catherine has lived for so long.

There are many riveting moments in this mathematical mystery romance, and the suspense keeps the audience engaged throughout. Can Catherine prove that she wrote the ground-breaking proof of that theorem? Can she break loose from her depression and overcome her doubts, fears and bitterness to prove herself capable of loving and functioning independently in the world?

Particularly memorable is the moment in the first scene when the audience suddenly realizes, after father and daughter have been talking with some intensity for almost fifteen minutes, that the father’s funeral is the next day and that he exists only in Catherine’s mind; and then the final line of the first act when Catherine astonishes her listeners onstage and in the audience with her announcement that she wrote the revolutionary proof; and, in the second act, a poignant flashback to four years before, when a hopeful Catherine is devastated to learn, from reading her father’s journal, that he has again lapsed into his dark world of insanity.

The “proof” of the title refers most directly to the proof of the mathematical theorem that is discovered in the deceased Robert’s notebook. But its meanings stretch out to enrich the play with suggestions that Catherine must deliver proof that she is indeed the originator of this work, and, at the same time, Catherine is seeking proof—of Hal’s affections, of her sister’s positive intentions, of her own ability to overcome her doubts, fears and depression in order to move forward—in all other facets of her life. This talented Intime ensemble brings Proof to life and provides its own proof of mature understanding, commitment and first-rate acting skills.

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