Remember your high school math teacher expounding on the elegance of proofs? These often confounding demonstrations of the truth of mathematical statements have driven many a mathematician to distraction, as evidenced by the 358-year struggle to discover a proof for Fermat's Last Theorem, former holder of the Guinness World Record for “most difficult math problem.” Their elusive, maddening beauty provides the framework for David Auburn’s 2001 opus, Proof.
Within Theatre Puget Sound’s warren-like Theatre4, reached via a gloomy, winding hallway that deserves to be in a 1980s slasher film, Seattle’s newest independent theater company, Blank Stage Theater, debuted their inaugural production last week. It takes a fair amount of chutzpah to announce your arrival on the Seattle theater scene with a play that not only won the Pulitzer and Tony awards a decade ago, but is loaded with challenging jargon and fraught with considerable emotional weight.
In the wee hours of Catherine’s (Nathania ten Wolde) 25th birthday, her brilliant mathematician father (Andrew Tribolini) appears, bearing cheap champagne and his best wishes. This would be touching, except for one small detail: He died a week ago. In what can be seen as a numeric riff on Hamlet’s encounter with his own ghost dad, Catherine’s father urges her to avenge, or rather validate, his mathematical life. As a remedy for the sullen depression she has sunken into during the days following his passing, he urges her to do some math. “You knew what a prime number was before you could read,” he says. “Even your depression is mathematical.”
While Catherine dreams, or maybe hallucinates, her father’s birthday wishes, one of his former students is actively attempting to salvage the dead professor’s work. In the house that Catherine shared with her father in his final years, 103 notebooks sit filled with the dead man’s writings. Twenty-eight-year-old Hal (E. J. Gong) is certain that he can discover something groundbreaking among the thousands of compulsively handwritten pages. Catherine’s father had some unconventional theories. He believed that his formulas could uncover secret messages from a pile of leaves or the steam coming off a cup of coffee.
It quickly becomes apparent that Catherine’s father was insane.
After serving as her father’s tireless caregiver for five years, Catherine has no illusions about his state of mind when he wrote the notebooks. He thought that aliens were sending him messages through the numbers of the Dewey Decimal System on library books, she informs Hal. “I don’t believe a mind like his could shut down,” he replies. After all, before her father was 25, he had revolutionized game theory, algebraic field theory and … some kind of geometry.
Remember, this is a production filled with math jargon. Be prepared for some of it to slip by you. Even director Rebecca Goldberg sought the aid of an official “Math Advisor” (Jenni Taggart) for the production.
These 103 number-choked notebooks dominate Proof, though we only see a handful of them on stage. The set, designed by Goldberg and ten Wolde, is nearly dismissible as a cheap round-up of Ikea furniture painted gray, complete with Pergo flooring. It is saved, however, by two huge panels of canvas covered with penciled numbers, M-shaped birds in flight, and illegible scrawls. These graphic glimpses into a brilliant but ruined mind loom powerfully over the characters, like oracular billboards.
For Hal, the loss of the spark of ingenuity that fuels great mathematical minds is worse than insanity. Catherine’s father had already made his mark on the world of mathematics twice before age 22. “There’s this fear that your creativity peaks around 23,” he says. “The really, really original work is all [by] young guys.” Pushing 30, Hal is staring hard at the ugly vision of an amphetamine-fueled career spent teaching younger, more annoying versions of himself.
Proving that Catherine’s father was more genius than madman may be Hal’s obsession, but the more pressing concern is whether hostile, paranoid Catherine inherited more than their father’s gift with numbers. After abandoning Catherine years ago, her sister Claire (Jennifer Kallmeyer), has returned to make amends and discover how her sister’s mental health has stood up after years of negotiating with a crazy man. Math ability is inherited, she believes. So, too, may be madness. “I probably got one 1,000th of my father’s ability. It’s enough. Catherine got more. I’m not sure how much,” Claire worries. “I think I’m like my dad,” Catherine acknowledges. “I’m afraid I’m like him.”
The discovery of a single notebook filled with lucid formulations on a (thankfully not belabored) theorem about prime numbers, for which mathematicians have been seeking a proof since the dawn of math, is the lynchpin of the characters’ mounting interpersonal conflict. They all want the proof to have been written by Catherine’s father; a sign that his brilliance never completely evaporated. But Catherine’s claim that she wrote it may be a sign that she is just as delusional as her father.
Proof is a lot for any theater company to handle, much less a brand new one. Blank Stage is hampered by a theater space that is unassuming to the point of Off-Off-Off-Broadway status. The inexperience of several of the actors shone through at inconvenient times. Stock poses were struck and lines were repeatedly stuttered during intense moments, but their collective commitment never flagged. Unmistakable passion is fueling the company, and there’s enough artistic promise to make them worth watching, if they can weather this period of sallow funding and theater closures.
If you go: Proof runs through Dec. 3 at Theatre4 in Seattle Center. $12-$15. For tickets, visit http://blankstagetheater.blogspot.com.