Wesley Bishop

Free Image Hosting at www.ImageShack.us Photo by Cliff Coles; click for larger image of Hal (Quinn Mattfeld), Robert (Wesley Bishop) and Catherine (Kate Cook).

Ghosts and Puzzles
Proof requires leaps of faith
by Suzi Steffen

Games: Number games, word games, logic games … mind games.

The math and science geeks I know play many games to occupy their speedy brains. In David Auburn’s Proof, the author creates a high-stakes emotional game for mathematicians, with intuitive connections that his main character desperately needs others to make — leaps that they, poor fools, can’t quite complete.

Proof played at the Lord Leebrick Theatre a few years ago, and it’s brought back to Eugene on the cavernous Soreng stage by brave soul Kirk Boyd, artistic director of the Willamette Rep. Boyd is stuck with a ridiculous space, but he has a talent for choosing plays that both challenge and please his audience. Proof fits the playbill. The audience gasped, oohed and aahed many times the night I went to the play, demonstrating that most saw neither the Leebrick production nor the 2005 movie with Gwyneth Paltrow. That’s charming and rewarding for the actors and director Pat Patton, an experienced Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor and director.

But is their enthusiasm warranted? The script, despite its Tony Award, has some problems with characterization. The actors at the Rep deal half-successfully with those issues, but the play’s games still have the power to affect and move an audience.

The puzzle the playwright creates revolves around the reconstruction of a time when Catherine (Kate Cook) tried to escape the vortex of her father Robert’s insanity for a life of her own. Robert (Wesley Bishop) was a brilliant mathematician, still venerated by students and colleagues, whose severe psychosis destroyed his career. He has a few months of clarity in the midst of decades of madness, and that time serves as a touchstone to the later setting of the play, when Robert has just died.

Auburn wrote the script, according to director Patton, after learning that “a number of famous mathematicians had suffered from mental illness.” Well, sure. So have a number of unknown mathematicians — along with people who can’t balance their checkbooks. Auburn exploits our fascination with mad geniuses through his characterization both of Robert and of Catherine. The smart, lonely young woman fears she may have inherited her father’s madness, and her older sister Claire (Megan Smith) worries about that too.

Claire’s a thankless role, one that Smith plays with an unfortunate accent and attitude (along with unsuitably frumpy costumes). Claire took care of Robert and Catherine financially while avoiding the emotional strain of dealing with them. She flies in for the funeral to dispose of everything and whisk Catherine off to New York — which is “so much more fun” than “dead” Chicago. To emphasize the “dead” theme, scenic designer Nadya Geras-Carson provides unseasonable dry leaves beside a strong yet dilapidated back porch.

But there’s life in Chicago yet: Interspersed with the stilted interactions between the two sisters are Catherine’s flirtations with Hal (Quinn Mattfeld, quite the most solid actor in this show) and remembered moments with Robert. Bishop, playing a mad/sane/mad father and genius, can’t resist chewing some scenery but provides a few touching moments as well.

Mattfeld goes a long way toward helping Cook, as Catherine, settle down. She’s all brittle cheekbones and oddly clipped phrases in the beginning, perhaps trying to show Catherine’s potential instability, but her gawkiness and wild-eyed stares leave the audience confused about why Hal would find her attractive.

And is Catherine delusional? Auburn balances that question through to the end, with feints and flashbacks slowly providing the clues to the puzzle’s solution. Cook must dance a highwire of depicting Catherine’s neediness without making her pitiful. She’s lived in hell with her father, but she won’t find heaven in New York or in Hal’s arms. As the audience learns the truth, Catherine must find a way out of her father’s shadow and into her own life.

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Proof runs through Feb. 24 at the Willamette Repertory Theatre. Tix at www.hultcenter.org or 682-5000.

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