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‘Proof’ pits mind against math in ATIP production

Stewart Oksenhorn
Missy Moore performs in the Aspen Theatre In The Park production of "Proof". Aspen TImes photo/Devo.
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For those whose mathematical training extended not far past 2 + 2 = 4, math can seem like a dry, precise field, punctuated by absolutes. But the deeper you go into mathematics, the fuzzier and more theoretical it becomes. Mathematical proofs are nearly as much an art as a science, subject to far more interpretation and imagination than simple arithmetic. At its most complex, math is maddeningly slippery. Little wonder, then, that mathematicians are a breed apart, often living in worlds that seem to be of their own creation.Aspen Theatre in the Park’s production of “Proof,” David Auburn’s Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, offers a sharp view of the elusive universe of math and mathematicians. Everything about the play – its nonlinear structure, the unsteady hold its characters have on reality, the themes of trust and proof – points toward the essential ephemeral quality of life. Effectively underscoring this notion, “Proof” is not about any one thing, but keeps several balls in the air for the audience to consider.At the center of the story is Catherine, a sullen and sarcastic young woman – played by Missy Moore – living alone in a drafty old house near the University of Chicago. Sort of alone. In the opening sequence, Catherine is having a pleasant enough conversation with her father, Robert, who, it turns out, is a ghost, or a figment of her imagination. But after the apparition exits, a different picture of her relationship with her recently deceased father comes to light.

Dad – Robert by name, played by Moore’s real-life father, Bob Moore – had been, in life, both a brilliant mathematician and a deranged eccentric. One of his students, the geeky Hal (Ed Cord), is nosing through his old notebooks, convinced that there will be some lucid, groundbreaking work – “proofs” – amid the incoherent ramblings. Catherine is not only unpersuaded, but also perturbed, put off by Hal’s presence and, in the end, suspicious of Hal’s motives.Next in turn to rile Catherine is her successful, smug sister, Claire (Kelley Mauldin). Claire upsets Catherine by begging her to abandon the old house and come with her to New York. Clawing away at her sister’s motives, it eventually becomes apparent to Catherine that Claire wants her to get psychiatric care, and remain under Claire’s close watch.Which turns out to be maybe not such a bad idea. Living with and caring for her father in his final years, Catherine has become acutely aware that she not only has much of her father’s genius, but possibly also a good bit of his tendency toward mental illness. Evidence of Catherine’s polar personality is everywhere: in the way she has bounced between scholastic achievement and incapacity; in her alternating defiance and acquiescence to her sister’s pleas; in her ambivalence toward Hal.

This all unfolds like a puzzle, whose pieces are necessarily scattered about, but which undoubtedly adds up to a whole in the end. One scene in the second act backtracks in time to when Robert is still alive and Catherine is a student, aspiring to follow in her father’s footsteps. It is a particularly effective sequence: Robert, who has been in a relatively stable interval, is on the porch, freezing, but insisting he is progressing on what might be the most significant work of his life. When Catherine sees the work, her fears are confirmed: The nonsensical ramblings not only show that her father is slipping back into the murk, but they also seem to indicate Catherine’s fate as well.Directed by Peter Hughes, “Proof” provides no pat conclusions – not about fathers and daughters, fears, genetics or mathematics. Rather, the play is willing to swim slowly through these murky issues, and trusts that the audience will see them in a sharper light by its end. Through the vivid performances of Missy Moore and Bob Moore, this is a near-certainty.

“Proof” shows this week Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 1617, and Friday and Saturday, Aug. 2021. It has its final performances in the Aspen Theatre in the Park season Aug. 2526.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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