Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
by David Auburn
Directed by Christian Parker
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Lowell) For a play that focuses on mathematics, Proof, playing at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, nails social theory. In this thoughtful production, we learn that a family is really a group organism that can adapt to having a limb injured or severed, but that organism can never be the same afterwards.
As the play begins, we join a brilliant mathematical family picking up the pieces from the recurring madness of its patriarch, Robert (Michael Pemberton). Robert’s youngest daughter, Catherine (Keira Keeley), has leaned into his madness, growing depressed as she casts aside her life to be his caretaker. Robert’s oldest daughter, Claire (Megan Byrne), lives with her choice to flee by sending money from afar and cloaking herself in self-righteousness. A new tragedy strikes the family, but with it comes the discovery that a groundbreaking mathematical proof has been worked out in the house during Robert’s years of madness. The discovery by Hal (Colby Chambers), one of Robert’s students, forces the family to reexamine what they have become.
The elegance of David Auburn’s script is sometimes lost here, as the production is not flawless, but the amalgam of his words and this production makes for strong theatre. At its heart, this play is about the ties that both bind and cut deep, and this is most evident in the hauntingly sweet interactions between Robert and Catherine. Pemberton could have gone to the rafters with crazy, but he chooses instead to craft Robert as the stable center of instability, which gives Keeley something to build on to make Catherine much more complicated than a martyr. The young woman may give up her promising career in mathematics to care for her father, but she is rewarded with a closeness that leaves her older sister on the outside looking in.
Director Christian Parker is less successful with building the relationship between Catherine and her older sister. Sometimes, we can see the cat-and-mouse game between the two that is familiar to all siblings; other times, the scenes devolve into Lifetime movie material. Another bump in the night is that the actors are asked by Parker to do some curious blocking, including a strange sequence where Claire asks Hal to wander around the side of the house to close out a scene.
These flaws are only evident because Parker and the cast are successful most of the time at creating a three-dimensional world. It’s evident in moments when you can smell a Chicago summer from the family’s back-porch or feel the tension when there is a knock on the door and no one answers. It’s even easy to connect with the unseen characters, including a group of drunken physicists, because this production succeeds in proving that family operates in several epochs at once. The past always weighs on the present and the future.