At Vancity Culture Lab (at The Cultch) until June 8
Posted on June 6, 2013
Proof has one of the best end-of-Act 1 hooks ever written. Playwright David Auburn absolutely guarantees you’ll want to stay for Act 2 with the bombshell his character Catherine (Josette Jorge) drops just before the lights go down. And that’s good because the producing company, Mnemonic Theatre Productions, offers a money back guarantee at intermission.
Mnemonic, in case you’ve forgotten your ancient Greek, means ‘mindful’. And Auburn’s play is about the mind, about losing the mind and about the fear of losing one’s mind – especially when genetics suggest the likelihood. It’s also about love.
In the play, we learn that Robert (Jim Preston) had burst onto the mathematics scene with a brilliant proof before he was twenty-five but did little else after that. Mathematics, he said, was a young man’s game. In the four years before he died, his genius abandoned him and he went completely mad.
His daughter Catherine – now twenty-five – who knew all the prime numbers by the age of five, quit university where she was studying math, to stay home and care for him until his death. Her sister Claire (Andrea Yu) left home years ago and now lives and works in New York where she will soon marry Mitch whom we never see but hear plenty about; Mitch says this and Mitch says that. Claire has returned home to Chicago for her Robert’s funeral.
You don’t have to be a theoretical mathematician to enjoy Proof. We get it: Robert, Catherine and Robert’s former student Hal (Minh Ly) have high-functioning brains. They live and breathe numbers although Hal is also involved in what he calls a “geek band” made up of, what else, math students.
The issue here is Catherine’s terror that along with her father’s genius she might also have inherited his neurological disorder or as sister Claire euphemistically puts it, “his instability.”
Whether it’s Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or breast cancer, genetic predisposition to disease is a hot topic these days. Who hasn’t looked at an ailing parent and wondered if, when you forget a phone number, your hand shakes or you find a little lump, that it isn’t a foreshadowing of your own demise? And what if it is? What then?
Directed by Raugi Yu in The Cultch’s tiny Vancity Culture Lab, this is a compelling production of a stimulating Pulitzer-prize winning play. I last saw this play on The Playhouse stage with a full Pam Johnson set: shrivelled flowers in pots, dead leaves on a slightly derelict porch. But here in the Culture Lab set designer Shizuka Kai does wonders with a small stage: horizontal, wooden ‘shingles’ suggest a house with a screen door and a veranda. Behind what appears to be a window into the interior is what Yu told me was a 60” plasma TV screen. Sometimes we see a ‘still’ of the living room on the screen but at another time we see a wake in full, noisy progress.
The Playhouse production starred Jillan Fargey, Vincent Gale, Jennifer Clements and the late David Ross. Stellar and hard to beat.
But Yu’s cast pulls its weight, too, and in some ways its youthfulness has its own advantages. Ly is sweetly engaging and fully believable as geeky Hal whom we briefly suspect of self-interest in his relationship with Catherine. He’s just a little bit awkward – appropriate to the situation his character finds himself in. Yu’s Claire is thoroughly unlikeable but the playwright doesn’t push it. Claire, it turns out, has been bankrolling the family for years. Yu does so well the chirpy, terminally cheerful act it’s enough to drive anyone crazy.
Preston appears to be a bit young to play Robert – and definitely too well built for a scholar who’s been sitting around for four years scribbling in notebooks. But Preston effectively gets us hostile with his character’s condescension of Catherine and he earns our pity when, later in the play, he fully realizes his madness.
But it’s Josette Jorge who makes this production work so splendidly. Her range is tremendous from almost catatonic to full on rage. She’s girlish in her scenes with Hal, ferocious with Claire. And you could almost weep for Catherine when, almost too late, she discovers that her father loved and admired her. Altogether it’s a lovely performance by this SFU School for the Contemporary Arts graduate.
With constant media attention given to genetics and bio-engineering, Proof is timely. To what extent are we willing to accept that our fate is not in our stars but in our genes? And if we accept it, do we let it paralyse us or encourage us to pick up the pace?