‘Proof’ – a performance more complicated than calculus

I sat in the Betts Theatre’s house seat, overhearing the lighting crew of the latest Department of Theatre and Dance production Proof joking as the stage manager called the actors to take their places for the opening scene.

“So what show are we doing tonight?” the lighting designer asked with a straight face. “The Wizard of Oz,” a lighting assistant replied with a smirk. They had to fix a troublesome spot in the lights one of them noticed – a shadow was out of place. The student assistant asked why. “Shadows are what make us exist,” he replied without hesitation.

I looked over the set that doesn’t change throughout the play’s progress, with all action taking place on a back porch, complete with overturned flowerpots and a simple wooden bench. The lights in the audience dimmed and a woman in a sweatshirt walked onstage.

Winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize in drama and Tony Award for best play, David Auburn’s play Proof follows Catherine (Cara Chute) in the aftermath of her father’s death. She must confront her estranged sister (Maggie Contreras), hesitantly nurture a burgeoning romance with a former student of her father’s (Zack Colonna), solve the mystery of the 103 notebooks her father (David Lipschutz) left behind and consider that she has perhaps inherited her father’s schizophrenia along with his mathematical genius.

“It isn’t a math play,” Chute assured me repeatedly, although it’s a misconception that could be easily made. Director Nate Garner brought in the Elliott School’s David Alan Grier, a mathematician, to teach the cast about the disordered numeric mind. Aside from forcing the cast to do mathematical proofs, Grier explained how easy it is to lose sight of the world amid so much abstract thought. The evolving relationships between Catherine and the three other characters are what hold together the emotion of the piece, while mathematics serve as a framework for the plot.

“Math is the catalyst,” Chute explains, for revealing the delicate interconnection of a father’s and daughter’s lives.

Bringing up the movie with Chute might have been a bad idea. The film adaptation, released Sept. 16 from Miramax, includes the original playwright as a contributing screenwriter and boasts a cast led by Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Jake Gyllenhaal. Chute has decided to sit out watching the film – at least for now – to preserve her interpretation of Catherine’s character. The last thing she wants, she says, is to be compared to Paltrow.

“I’m Cara Chute,” she shrugs her shoulders, “who grew up in New York and doesn’t come from (the) money and famous parents (that Paltrow did).”

Still, she accepts it will undoubtedly happen, and recognizes that the movie could bring in a good influence: “People will say, ‘Hey they just made a movie about this, let’s check out the play.'”

The production of Proof at the University is a bit of a departure, Chute admits, as so much of the plays usually put on are by classic, antique authors. Classicism has its place, but Proof is evidence of great modern theatre, she says. In an era that normally seeks entertainment in $10 movies where “stuff gets blown up,” Chute posits that a play like Proof that relies on psychological insight, an exploration of inner worlds and a life in the shadows, where the set never changes and the special effects are limited, can be a moment shared between an audience and a production that a distant movie screen could never match.

Proof will be performed at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre Oct. 5-8 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 9 at 2 p.m. Student tickets are $8 and are available at the door or online at http://ww.gwu.edu/~theatre.

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